Union drive at Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery fails

By: - February 10, 2022 10:00 am
A man walks through a distillery. (Photo: Getty Images)

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

On Wednesday, with a final tally of 21 ‘no’ votes to nine ‘yes’ votes, workers at Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville were unsuccessful in their attempt to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers International. 

In mid-December, The United Distillery Workers of Tennessee (UDWT) announced their intent to organize, and demanded that Constellation Brands—parent company of Nelson’s Green Brier—voluntarily recognize their union. Constellation refused, and the effort moved to an election drive.

As the Lookout reported in December, workers were frustrated by decreasing wages and the lack of adequate protections related to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. They also saw how their unionized industry peers are better-compensated. Nearly 12,500 people sent emails of support for UDWT to Constellation.

According to Dylan Lancaster, front-of-house worker and lead organizer for UDWT, 29 of Nelson’s workers—of the 39 eligible—signed authorization cards with the UFCW indicating their interest in forming a union. Since Lancaster delivered a letter of recognition to management, Constellation has tried in various ways to discourage workers from voting yes, Lancaster said.

“In that time, the company engaged in union-busting tactics, and managed to flip a majority of people,” Lancaster said. “It’s really disheartening to see workers vote so adamantly against their own self-interest.”

The Nelson’s website says that Charlie and Andy Nelson, the brothers who reopened the family distillery in 2012, “made a pact to bring the family whiskey business back to life.” It concludes by referring to them as “the essence of the American dream and spirit,” but makes no mention of the fact that Charlie and Andy sold a majority stake of the distillery to Constellation Brands in the spring of 2019. 

Constellation is a Fortune 500 company that posts revenues in the billions every year, and is one of the largest producers and marketers of beer, wine, and spirits in the world, with brands such as Robert Mondavi, Corona, and Svedka Vodka. Workers at many of their other brands are already unionized with the UFCW.

In terms of our organizing, this is not the end of the United Distillery Workers of Tennessee. This was never going to end with us - it was always a project to sow solidarity throughout Tennessee, and across the country.

– Dylan Lancaster, lead organizer for UDWT

Even though Charlie and Andy are not the majority owners of the company, Charlie held a ‘captive audience meeting’—a typical union-busting tactic—a day before voting started. Lancaster attended this meeting with his coworkers.

“[Charlie] said all this anti-union stuff, encouraged people to vote, and basically begged people to vote ‘no’,” Lancaster said. “It certainly was successful, unfortunately.”

After Wednesday’s vote, Charlie and Andy held another meeting for Nelson’s workers. They wanted to address the vote and talk about what’s next. Charlie did the talking.

[Charlie] thanked everyone for voting and for the majority of people wanting to work with them and not a union,” said one Nelson’s worker, who spoke to Tennessee Lookout on condition of anonymity out of fear of getting fired. “At the end, it was just them saying how this is going to be a really big year, and that they want everyone to work together as a team to move in the right direction.”

The worker added, however, that “there was no mention of trying to work on any of the concerns that we voiced…no talk of working towards better compensation for the work we do.” The worker said they hope those things will come later.

Organizers with the United Distillery Workers of Tennessee say they will work to defeat the proposed Right to Work constitutional amendmet on November’s ballot.

When speaking about whether the Nelson brothers will make positive changes for the sake of workers, Lancaster said, “I’m not holding my breath.”

A Lookout reporter tried to reach Charlie and Andy for comment, as well as a representative from Constellation, but had not received any responses by publication time.

While Lancaster and the others who voted ‘yes’ are disappointed by the result of this vote, Lancaster said that he’s encouraged by the kinds of conversations the effort sparked. It’s also worth noting that the drive even received national attention.

“In terms of our organizing, this is not the end of the United Distillery Workers of Tennessee,” Lancaster said. “This was never going to end with us – it was always a project to sow solidarity throughout Tennessee, and across the country.”

To that end, Lancaster believes the drive was a success. In fact, they’ve already had some workers at other companies contact them for tips on how to start organizing their own workplaces. Lancaster also mentioned that the UDWT intends to do whatever it can to defeat the proposed ‘Right to Work’ constitutional amendment in Tennessee.

“This was one fight that we unfortunately lost, but we have a lifetime of fight in us,” 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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