Jim Beam workers: Our strike was more about time than money

A week-long strike at two Jim Beam distilleries in Kentucky came to an end when workers on October 21 voted to accept a tentative agreement negotiated by their union.

The strike was about more than money. Members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 111 D wanted to curb the company’s excessive overtime, which made it difficult for them to have a normal life outside of work. They also wanted more respect from the company.

Before the strike began, workers rejected two company proposals, one on October 10 by a vote of 201 to 19 and the other on October 13 by a vote of 174-46.

As the workers prepared to strike on October 14, Local 111 D President Janelle Mudd explained what motivated them to do so.

“While there are numerous reasons for this decision, the main issues we wish to resolve reflect the family values and heritage upon which the Jim Beam brand is based,” said Mudd. “We seek a better work/life balance. We strive to protect our positions and seniority so as to ensure our future. We want management changes that will improve safety and quality. And, we need a contract in which all language is clear and concise to avoid future misinterpretations.”

Members of the union walking the picket line were more specific about why they were on strike.

“Some of us are working 60, 80 plus hours a week, sometimes for seven days a week,” said Troy Frazier, a processing operator for a video made about the strike. ”

“We’re trying to get our lives back, trying to get a fair contract,” said Jim Tucker, another process operator. “When you go to work, you never know when you’re going home. My (work) time is (supposed to be) 7:30 to 4:00. I come in early a lot around 5:30. I’m there ’til 5:00, 6:00, 7:00, 7:30, 8:00. When you go to work you never know when you’ll get to go home.”

“We don’t have any time with our family lives. You come home (after work), eat, go to bed. . . . (The strike) is more about time; money is not the issue,” said Trevor Coulter, also a processing operator.

The final version of the collective bargaining agreement that won approval by a vote of 204-19 is a two-year deal that requires the company to add and train more full-time staff, so that the grueling amount of overtime can be cut back.

But workers will still be working long shifts until at least until July. The company says that it needs that time to hire and train new workers who can take the heavy load off those already on the job.

The final version also includes a cap on temporary employees that the company can hire. Workers on the picket line said that instead of hiring workers at full pay, the company relied too heavily on low-paid temporary workers.

In addition, the new contract eliminates a two-tiered wage structure that allowed the company to pay new workers less.

Workers also wanted management to respect the seniority system, and they wanted a contract with the duties and responsibilities of management and employees clearly spelled out.

According to Mudd, the “(the company) really addressed everything that we asked them to,” in the new contract.

Jim Beam workers are the latest group of workers fighting for more control of their time.

Last year oil workers in the US went on strike over safety and scheduling issues.

Like the Jim Beam workers, oil workers wanted to end excessive overtime and scheduling practices that resulted in 12-hour days with few and sometimes no off days.

Flight attendants last year rejected a contract offer from Southwest Airlines because the company wanted the new contract to contain language that would change scheduling practices that flight attendants said would impinge on their time away from work.

Angelo Young writing for Salon reports that time, especially having enough free time away from work, has once again become an important issue for workers.

Whether it’s high-paid workers like those at Jim Beam or low-wage workers like those at Walmart or McDonald’s, workers need sufficient time away from work to rest, recuperate, enjoy their family and friends, and be active in the community, writes Young citing experts in the field.

Healthy families, volunteer work that helps create successful communities, and the emotional and physical well being of workers who want fulfilling lives outside of work “all depend on people having free time,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations to Young.

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