Fired up, ready to go: Workers at Nashville distillery seek union representation

By: - December 13, 2021 2:41 pm
A man walks through a distillery. (Photo: Getty Images)

A man walks through a distillery. (Photo: Getty Images)

On Friday, workers at the Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville announced their effort to organize with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW Local 1995). 

Constellation Brands, a Fortune 500 company, is the parent corporation of Nelson’s Green Brier, as well as international brands such as Corona, Modelo, and Svedka Vodka, having taken a majority stake in Nelson’s Green Brier in spring 2019.

The United Distillery Workers of Tennessee (UDWT)—the name that the Nelson’s Green Brier workers chose—are demanding that Constellation voluntarily recognize their union. If successful, Nelson’s Green Brier would be the first unionized distillery in the Volunteer State.Nelson's Green Brier Distillery Logo

According to Dylan Lancaster, front-of-house worker at Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery and lead organizer of the union effort, Constellation paid workers to stay home at the start of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They also paid tipped workers like Lancaster higher wages during the furlough to close the gap in earnings. But as the pandemic continued, Constellation instructed workers to return and removed wage protections, bringing everyone back down to their pre-pandemic base pay.

“As you can imagine, the folks who were traveling during the pandemic before vaccines typically weren’t the best tippers in the world,” Lancaster said. “[They] weren’t the most considerate about mask mandates, about social distancing, about any of those types of Covid protocols.”

With less traffic, and less tip money from the traffic they got, many distillery workers’ wages decreased. Lancaster and some of his coworkers brought the safety and wage concerns to Constellation, but in response received what Lancaster called “all the classic lines.” He said that Constellation management told workers that “raises don’t happen overnight,” and that they were “doing the best we can.”

Earlier this week, news broke that Constellation Brands plans to open a new brewery in southeastern Mexico—an investment of $1.3 billion. According to Lancaster, Constellation has also allocated $10-15 million for renovations and additions to Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery itself.

At that point, Lancaster said they started to look at their industry peers. They wanted to get a better idea of the conditions at similarly-sized distilleries.

“[They] are represented by unions and are getting paid substantially more, have better benefits,” Lancaster said.

For example, said Lancaster, they make less than their counterparts at Bardstown, Ky.’s Heaven Hill Distillery —a unionized distillery represented by UFCW Local 23— even though the cost of living in Nashville is significantly higher than that of Bardstown. The recent strike at Heaven Hill, where workers won many of their demands, combined with the fact that workers there are better-compensated, is what pushed Lancaster and his coworkers to act now.

It’s not entirely clear what happens next. Lancaster delivered a letter of recognition—an official request that the employer recognize the union—to his immediate supervisor on Friday. Workers intending to unionize also sent a letter of recognition to a human resources representative at Constellation. At the time of writing, he hadn’t received any official responses.

I would hope that (Constellation) would be willing to negotiate with us, in spite of the fact that we are in a state that has rather draconian labor laws.

– Dylan Lancaster, employee of Nelson's Green Brier Distillery

“No one has spoken to me since (Friday)  morning when I delivered that letter,” Lancaster said. “Everyone’s been very tight-lipped, a lot of closed and locked doors.”

Thousands of people have already taken action in support of the UDWT’s efforts. The UDWT tweeted for the first time ever at 11 a.m. on Friday, asking people to help by participating in an email-writing campaign. Originally, the campaign had a stated goal of 1,600 emails, but within an hour, they’d already exceeded it. By 11 p.m., supporters had sent more than 5,800 emails from Tennessee, several other states, and even the U.K. The UDWT had partners in this pressure campaign, with both the Central Labor Council of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, and the AFL-CIO, sponsoring the request for emails.

“We’ve been just blown away by the support of local folks, but also people all over the country…who are fans of Nelson’s Green Brier products,” Lancaster said. “People would love to see those products being union-made in Tennessee.”

Despite public support, however, the UDWT faces a number of potential obstacles. Lancaster repeatedly referenced the challenges of organizing in a ”Right to Work” state like Tennessee.

If Constellation refuses to voluntarily recognize the union, the process would move to an election drive. While the UDWT has overwhelming buy-in from workers—Lancaster estimated 80%—union drives can be difficult. They often take substantial time, money, and organizational support.

“I would hope that [Constellation] would be willing to negotiate with us, in spite of the fact that we are in a state that has rather draconian labor laws,” Lancaster said.

The UFCW already represents workers at other Constellation brands, notably at Robert Mondavi Winery, and others at MGP, the company that sources the whiskey for the distillate in Belle Meade Bourbon (one of Nelson’s Green Brier’s most popular products). The union also represents workers at other leaders in the whiskey business, such as Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Sazerac, and Four Roses. 

A Lookout reporter tried to reach Constellation officials but had not received a response by publication time.

But if Constellation isn’t willing to come to the table in good faith, Lancaster said that he and his coworkers are ready.

“We are prepared to fight,” Lancaster said.

 

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Eric Dorman
Eric Dorman

Eric Dorman is a Nashville-based writer who covers labor and workforce issues.

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