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Woodford Reserve ‘undermined’ union efforts

Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve distillery violated labour laws by awarding pay rises and giving away bottles of Bourbon to workers, a judge has ruled.

Woodford Reserve distillery
Brown-Forman operates the Woodford Reserve distillery in Kentucky

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Woodford Reserve, located in Versailles in Kentucky, had engaged in ‘violative and objectionable conduct’, which affected the results of an election by trade union International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Local 651).

The union filed an unfair labour practice charge against Woodford and its parent company, US spirits group Brown-Forman, for allegedly undermining its election, held on 17 November 2022.

In August 2022, the union had notified the distillery that it was organising a campaign to raise the wages of Woodford Reserve’s workers. In a letter to Woodford Reserve, the union said it had received majority support from the distillery’s workers. The union eventually lost the election, with only 14 in favour of unionisation and 45 against.

The union believed it could raise employees’ pay to US$27 per hour, the same wage that workers are paid at the group’s Louisville distillery.

In October 2022, distillery managers told employees they would receive a US$4 per hour pay rise, which was implemented on 10 November, a week before the election, the ruling said. Once the pay rise was announced, employee interest in the union diminished, the union alleged.

Woodford Reserve had already given a US$1 per hour wage rise to workers earlier in May 2022. This was the first time the distillery had given employees two across-the-board pay increases in the same year, the ruling said.

Woodford Reserve also changed its holiday and merit increase policies in October and handed out a 375ml bottle of its Double Oaked whiskey, valued at around US$30, to each production employee in November, a week prior to the election.

The change to the holiday policy meant workers would no longer have to use any of their allowance for the annual end-of-year distillery shutdown. Previously, employees had to save a minimum of five holiday days to use when the distillery shuts between late December and early January.

Woodford Reserve had also changed the pay progression policy to allow new and recently promoted employees to be eligible for the annual merit increase and paid them retroactively to 1 August.

In the ruling, Brown-Forman denied the union’s allegations and justified its actions by stating that the US$4 wage increase was to ensure the distillery’s hourly rates were “competitive with the industry average”.

The company also said it periodically rewarded workers with bottles for accomplishments or in recognition of events, claiming that the Double Oaked gift was due to the workers achieving a new SKU record between May and September 2022. But there was no explanation given for the timing of the gift, which was handed out on 10 November.

In the ruling, administrative law judge Andrew S Gollin said the “timing and circumstances surrounding these actions are more than sufficient to infer unlawful motivation”.

Brown-Forman said in a statement: “At this stage, we are reviewing the administrative law judge’s decision and determining our next steps based on the ruling.”

In March, Brown-Forman saw organic revenue decline by 2% in the third quarter of fiscal 2024 and said it expects full-year sales to be stagnant.

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