The Uphill Battle To Unionize Tennessee Whiskey
3:10 PM EDT on June 20, 2022
Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville sits near Watkins Park, not far from the state capitol. It’s a place where customers on a weekend can park themselves, chill out, and spend money on a variety of specialty spirits called things like Tennessee Sour Mash, Belle Meade Bourbon, and Louisa’s Liquor. The front of the building evokes a certain kind of craft cocktail bar venue you can imagine -- a large warehouse that was part of the Marathon Motor Works factory, an automobile manufacturer, painted that unmissable gunmetal gray and green. There is exposed brick and huge garage doors in the front facing Clinton Street, and a slogan written just above the front door that says: “Family owned -- and operated.” Step inside and the distillery features a lavish space called the “oak room,” where tastings and events are held at long tables extending out in rows. The species it attracts: lots of bachelor and bachelorette parties, whiskey clubs, loud crowds. Basically tourist's catnip.
It was a pre-Prohibition distillery operated by a businessman named Charles Nelson and later his wife, Louisa, in Greenbrier, Tennessee, roughly from 1870 to 1909, only later resurrected by Nelson’s great, great, great, grandsons Andy and Charlie Nelson in 2009. The brothers set up for business in Nashville complete with tours of the premises and specialty tastings, where customers can visit the production floor and watch the bottling process with a tour guide some days. When the two brothers first found the site of the old distillery from their grandfather’s past, they recall thinking “this is our destiny.” That’s how the story goes on the company’s website.
The company has continued to grow over the years, thriving as Nashville has continued its legacy as a tourist destination and become one of the fastest growing communities in the south. In 2019 a Fortune 500 company, Constellation Brands, acquired a majority stake in the distillery. The company continued to operate for much of 2020 and 2021, selling beverages and whiskies to customers and even rolling out new products. But as business continued as usual, even in the pandemic, other service workers were fighting for change nearby. At a time when unionization efforts have taken root in businesses of all sizes, the liquor business has not been immune. In September 2021, Nelson workers looked over at Bardstown, Kentucky, where workers at Heaven Hill Distillery went on strike after rejecting a contract proposal that would have reduced worker pay and schedules. Heaven Hill is a rather huge distillery, much bigger than Nelson’s, that has a wide portfolio of products, names like Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and Rittenhouse Rye. Like many distilleries in Kentucky, workers at Heaven Hill are unionized under the United Food and Commercial Workers Distillery and Winery Division, and six weeks later the workers voted to end the strike, announcing a new contract that would preserve affordable healthcare, increased pay and maintenance of overtime, among other provisions.
Currently there is only one unionized whiskey distillery in the state of Tennessee -- which is a right to work state, meaning, employees are not made to join a union as a condition of employment -- Cascade Hollow Distilling Co, which makes George Dickel. They unionized a few years earlier. The strike in Bardstown was something of a shake-you-by-the-shoulders moment for workers at Nelson, who had started to feel a change in the work culture after Constellation obtained a stake in the company a few year prior. “It just kind of all of a sudden it just kind of started feeling a lot more corporate. And a lot more just like you were cogs,” a former employee named Gray said. As the pandemic wreaked havoc on workplaces around the country, workers at Nelson’s Green Brier started talking with one another, they had a list of things they wanted to see changed. They had what they saw as reasonable demands. They wanted to organize in favor of raising wages, securing health care benefits, and ensuring more accountability from management. Within a few months around 80 percent of the workers had signed union cards. Things looked like they might turn out in their favor. But in February of this year the effort came to an end almost as quickly as it started: The final tally was 21-9 against unionization. They had lost the fight.
For a period it looked like the staff at Nelson's would follow the momentum of so many others in recent years who looked to change their fate through collective bargaining, sharing in the same story as Starbucks baristas and Amazon warehouse workers.
So what went wrong?
According to the Nelson’s official employee manual obtained by Defector, the tour guide is more or less the face of the company, the person who connects people to the brand, who literally guides them through Nelson's offerings. It reads: “As our only walk-in location in the United States, the distillery itself is the best marketing tool in our arsenal. Here in Nashville, we are highly regarded as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city alongside other Music City staples such as the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, The Ryman Auditorium and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Thousands of people come from all over the country (and the world) to hear our story and try our spirits.”
Defector spoke to nine current and former employees from Nelson’s in the course of reporting this story – those who supported and opposed the union effort. A number of them requested anonymity to not endanger their job. According to employees, working at the distillery involves wearing many hats. Some described it as a pretty good gig, a place where you could earn a little bit more money to support yourself if you had other things going on like a music career, or you were transitioning out of another industry. A 24-year-old employee named Aidan, had been working as a front of house worker for about six months and recently left. In that job he did an array of tasks: tours, worked the gift shop, occasionally made drinks for customers, though his official job title was tour guide. He’d left a high school teaching job before joining the distillery and was also doing a contract tracing gig. He was drawn to work at Nelson’s because a friend was working there and mentioned that a union drive was about to start. But the staff was skeletal, he says. “They were just really short- staffed at the time,” Aidan said. But he took the job knowing the union effort was underfoot. “I can go in and you know, agitate, inoculate. If all I do is provide one extra card signed and one extra ‘Yes’ that would make the difference, then I want to go ahead and do it.” He said the job wasn’t half bad, mostly, at least in a vacuum. “There's some days where everyone who comes in on my tours is super nice and friendly and they're excited to learn about it. And you know, sometimes like you get some whiskey nerds coming in and those are the best.”
The small staff size got to some employees. Another 26-year-old former staffer, Jackie, says at one point in 2020 he had asked for a raise because he was one of only a handful of employees who were actually working full-time. Jobs at the distillery are largely broken down into two categories: front of house workers who serve customers and do tours, and back of house workers, some of whom work on a bottling line packaging the whiskey. Not many employees officially work full- time, employees told me. The reason? Going full time doesn’t come with a raise and you can’t get healthcare off the ACA marketplace anymore, one employee explained to me. So many of these staffers get as close as possible to full time hours, while still opting out of the healthcare benefits because if they take those options, they lose money -- effectively taking a pay cut. Others had downgraded fully to part-time or quit entirely.
Dylan Lancaster, a 31-year-old musician living in the Nashville area decided to supplement his income and started working at the distillery in October 2019. He became one of the most vocal leaders of the union effort because of his experience working at Nelson’s. He was working part-time at first without benefits, but he was always bumping up to full time hours. But when an opportunity arose for a full time job, he took it. It did not come with a wage increase, but he was finally entitled to health care benefits. “Now half of my health care is coming out of my paycheck, so effectively by becoming a full time worker, I was making less money,” he said.
As the union effort started to percolate, tensions on the job rose. The opposition came from the two co-owners: Charles and Andew Nelson, multiple current and former employees told me. “Upper management, particularly Charlie and Andy, were definitely a lot more combative, to put it charitably,” Aidan said. Other employees disagreed. An employee who asked not to be named who’s been working at Nelson’s for almost two years said that he felt Charlie was reasonable. “I feel Charlie is very approachable, but there are people that work there that feel he's not, for whatever reason. Because in my time everybody's always just pleasant and very approachable,” he said. Yet Aidan alleged that Charlie Nelson would go on rants at staffers all the time. He mentioned one moment, the day after the union went public with their letter of recognition on December 10, 2021: “Charlie had a massive rant to everyone present, talking about how difficult this was for him and how he couldn't believe that we were doing this to him, just whining. I don't watch Succession, but it was described to me as a real Kendall Roy speech.”
A recording of that very speech was obtained by Defector for this story. At the beginning of the recording Charlie Nelson asks the members present how long they have been working at the distillery. He starts off: “So I wanted to take a second to just address the elephant in the room,” he says, referring to the union recognition letter. “It was weird, not the best vibe. And you know, some of you…look over the last couple years I haven’t been around as much, Andy and I used to be here pretty much everyday. We like being here. I love being here. This is my life. When I come into this building, and some of you won't look me in the eye and won't engage in conversation with me, that [fucking] breaks my heart.” He continues: “We worked fucking hard to start this business. And we wanted to create a good environment for people to work.” Then later: “This is really important to me, Andy, and our family, the community. It's not just a job, it's not just selling whiskey, it's not just the paycheck. And we wanted to create a good work environment where people feel…respect is incredibly important.” He goes on to detail the moment he received the petition from the staff to ask for union recognition. “This is the first time we've had to deal with that before, so I don't know exactly what the next steps are. You probably know a little bit better than I do, honestly. But man, I was extremely disappointed. Extremely disappointed. To be blindsided like that.” The room is silent.
There were many reasons the staff wanted to unionize, but one big priority was increased wages. “You could walk out of there on a day with good tips. You could walk out of there with decent money,” Aidan told me. But, the base hourly pay for some staffers in front of the house was $13.50 ahead of the pandemic. Right now the range starts closer to $15-16; a result of recent raises. By comparison, Tennessee has a minimum wage of $7.25. On slow days and when tourism was waning around holidays, pay would dip lower. Staffers were looking at the strike in Bardstown as an example of how to fight for higher wages. “I think that really was something that motivated people, especially at the beginning,” he said. Beyond the pay, many workers told me the benefits were also insufficient. “They really did not offer a good healthcare plan. Many people voluntarily chose to work like, you know, 37-38 hours a week, part time, rather than try to go full time because the health care plan was shitty and you would lose so much money trying to get it. But it was just better for them to buy it on the open market,” Aidan said.
A third reason the workers wanted to unionize was something Aidan referred to as general “accountability” with management. There’s different camps of people who work at this distillery, he says, which includes front and back of the house. At one point the owners wanted to automate the bottling process a few years ago, reducing the worker size. Over the years there had been cases of people being let go on the bottling line and then rejoining days later, according to employees familiar with the situation. Two rounds of employees were let go in the back of the house for a few days, and some of them had come back to the job, according to an employee familiar with the matter and who works in the back of the house. Others decided to leave for a more reliable job. The employee who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation said that although this did happen before, it was not a common practice at the distillery.
When Lancaster started at the distillery in 2019, the prospect of organizing the workplaces wasn’t really on anyone’s minds. “I remember it was around the 2020 election, or the lead up to it. And you know, I remember one of my coworkers was like, ‘Oh, you know, we probably shouldn't talk politics at work. It's not a good thing to do.'” And then the pandemic happened. Then the Great Resignation. Then it seemed like every workplace was unionizing or trying to. It was commonplace for workers to start talking about why they were unhappy in their positions. That’s when the conversation really started to change and the energy evolved at Nelson’s. Lancaster says that this flip was primarily brought on by the pandemic and what it laid bare for a lot of employees. “Just seeing a company's unwillingness to provide for workers who were, in our case, as front of house people dealing with the public,” he said. An employee who asked to not be named who has been working at the distillery for nearly two years offered a vehement counterpoint to these safety concerns, saying that Constellation had even instituted a questionnaire through an app called Virgin Pulse for employees to take before every work shift by answering a series of questions about symptoms and taking proper precautions before you start your shift. Defector obtained screenshots of that test, which asks employees to report a range of information, including whether they are up to date on vaccinations and boosters, report any Covid-19 symptoms, whether they have tested positive in the last 10 days or been in contact with someone who had tested positive. Lancaster told me the app has been down for a few days and has not been filling out the screeners.
Covid-19 safety has been one of the biggest concerns for employees in recent years. The distillery was open in the summer of 2020, long before vaccines became available to the public. Clientele did not always wear masks or social distance with staff. “Just kind of being thrown to the wolves in that regard made a lot of people think…we should do something about this,” Lancaster said. Lancaster explained that when some employees asked customers to wear masks, they would often refuse. They did not social distance. There were mandates, of course, to wear masks at all times through about a month or so ago, according to the company’s Covid-19 safety policies. All of this became nearly impossible to enforce, especially after customers were already sitting down for a couple of drinks. Staff members were largely left to their own defenses to figure out how to interact with the customers. And to top it all off, the relationship they maintained with these customers would obviously come to bear on the kind of tip they would receive.
“But it is difficult. When you're sitting down at a table with 15 people and showing them how to smell and taste whiskey…we do a lot of whiskey tastings, that all goes out the window.” Lancaster said, and he started to question his safety regularly. “Why am I getting paid to give whiskey tastings when there's a global pandemic right now? And I'm sitting in a room of people who are all coming from Florida and Texas and New Jersey, places that also have high transmission rates.”
Dylan set out to start organizing, talking to people about how and why they wanted to change their workplace and what they wanted their job to look like. Another employee who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation said that she was interested in the union effort at the distillery once it kicked into gear. She says it was really exciting to be part of something to fight for their worth, to be given livable wages in Nashville. She says the union movement was never forced upon anyone, that Lancaster began organizing and distributed the union cards to the staffers. An employee who was not in support of the union stressed that no one was pressured to vote yes, but the union effort was pervasive, he says. “There were no threats. There was nothing like that. But I think the super pro union people were very passionate, which is a good thing, to be passionate about something that you are invested in.” He says by early this year before the election, that passion intensified. “Because you couldn't have a conversation in that building without someone talking about the union,” he said. Another employee who has been working at the distillery for a little over a year said he did feel pressured to vote for the union and it created stress on the job, especially when he didn’t see eye to eye on the reasons for organizing. "When I didn't really necessarily agree with that reasoning, it got significantly worse. I was constantly pressured. Every single moment I was alone I just felt like those that were for it would kinda turn on me,” he said.
One of the things that convinced a number of workers of the need to unionize happened when the pandemic started in late March 2020. Constellation Brands paid employees to stay home for a period of time and increased workers wages to $18 an hour, up from the $13.50-14.50 an hour for new hires. The increase was meant to account for the tip differential. When employees were asked to come back to the distillery in the summer of 2020, when vaccines were still months away, the company lowered the pay back to the base rate again. “We took a pay cut to come back in person and start dealing with the public, which rubbed a lot of people wrong. Because a multibillion dollar corporation showed that they were willing to pay us $18 an hour literally to do nothing. And then when we're back to doing our jobs, we're getting paid less,” Lancaster said.
So they started doing research, which is how they found out about Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown. After they started organizing they found out about the union at Cascade Hollow Distilling Co. down in Tullahoma, where they bottle George Dickel. But the outlook was not promising. “The fact that almost every distillery in Kentucky has a union and [almost] none of us in Tennessee have one that seemed like…why is that?” Lancaster mused. He was able to get his hands on some of the contracts for other distilleries at places like Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Sazerac, which are all UFCW contracts. He said he found out that bottlers and distillers were making $8-$10 per hour more than the workers at Nelson’s were. “But they have nowhere near the cost of living that we have here in Davidson County, in Nashville. So to be getting paid $8-$10 less to live in a much more expensive city just didn't make any sense to any of us,” he said.
Slowly and surely Lancaster, Aidan, and others worked on convincing staffers working in different parts of the distillery it was time to unionize. Lancaster says that all the big organizing meetings happened outside of work starting in September 2021, up to the point when they filed for recognition on Dec. 10. The more they got organized, the more momentum they seemed to gain: They got a letter of support from LOCAL 205 Service Employees International Union, they were able to hold meetings at the UFCW local in Hermitage, around 30 minutes outside of Nashville. They had 20 out of 29 card signers show up to the first meeting either in person or on Zoom after hours, Lancaster said, adding he did some one-on-one meetings or went out for drinks after work too.
But before they officially filed for recognition the organizers took a final shot at working through regular channels at Nelsons. They met with human resources in person to air some grievances, only to get no real response, Lancaster said. They had exhausted their options within the company and their movement seemed like it had enough bodies and collective will to start a union within the distillery. At least that’s how it seemed going into the stretch leading up to the election. “What I understand is that at the start, everyone was gung ho, they were ready, they were ready to vote yes for the union,” Jackie told me. But then the owners started to communicate with staffers and “pandered to people like ‘we've started this company with just the clothes on our backs and a couple of bucks from our father,'” he said. Defector made multiple attempts to speak with Charlie and Andy Nelson as well as Constellation Brands and received no response. We will update this story if we receive comment.
At the beginning it was unclear who the burgeoning union should direct their attention toward. In 2019 Constellation Brands bought a majority stake in Nelson’s, after initially courting the company with a minority investment in 2016. According to SEC filings, the distillery completed a $20 million funding round in exchange for equity. Constellation owns brands like Svedka Vodka, Woodbridge Wine, and Corona, among others. The union that Nelson’s workers tried to organize with, UFCW Local 1995, also represents other Constellation brands like Robert Mondavi Winery. Jackie told me that the murkiness between the umbrella company and the more visible management of Charlie and Andy was where some of the confusion around the union messaging happened. Stephanie Luce, professor of Labor Studies at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, told me this is not an uncommon problem. She explained a concept articulated by economist David Weil’s called the fissured workplace: “There are many layers to the employment relationship and people might not even really know who signs the check or who's behind it. That’s in general confusing for workers,” she said. “It adds to people not understanding who the actual target is. It allows the owners to make this a personalized thing. You are hurting me personally.”
At Nelson’s the gradations of power seem apparent -- given Constellation owns a majority stake, but Charlie and Andy still run operations with the workers. “Charlie and Andy don't have as much power as they think they do from my perspective,” Jackie said. “They don't own the majority of the company. If I were to go up to them and ask for a raise, they would say the equivalent of ‘I'll run it up the flagpole and I'll let you know.’ That was the whole point. We have nothing against them because they don't own the company anymore. Everything we were asking for was because the company that they had sold to were not giving us what we needed. But then, they made it about themselves.” Lancaster stressed that Charlie and Andy were the most visible figureheads running the day to day of the job. “Constellation is kind of like a nebulous corporation where we are all basically names in a computer to them and they call all the shots,” he said. “One thing that Andy and Charlie were very successful at is they convinced a lot of people at the distillery that like, ‘Hey, we're still running the show. We're still calling the shots.’” But Charlie and Andy knew their absence was visible, Lancaster said they blamed COVID-19 for their disappearance, and that a return to normal would mean addressing workers' needs without a union. Lancaster reasoned that this personal approach was very effective. “I think day in and day out of this sad sack, mopey like a multi-millionaire thing worked on some people.”
And then there were the union education meetings. “Their strategy was kind of a unique one where they brought in union educators and they set up these education meetings during work,” Lancaster said. It’s a practice similar to "captive audience meetings," the type of action the National Labor Relations Board now considers to be a violation of the National Labor Relations Act. Luce noted: “They're ruled as coercive because they're not actually space for a real educational experience to go into data and different points of view,” she said.
In a recording obtained for this story, Lancaster can be heard asking Charlie Nelson which, “union busting firm are you going with,” to which Charlie responds “you know, I’m not sure, I’m not sure I would call any of this as union busting. This is an education thing. I think it's important for everybody to be educated.” Charlie continues, “Do you have an issue with people being educated on the issues?” to which Lancaster says, “No! I’m happy to educate my coworkers on this stuff.” The exchange continues. “I have worked very, very hard to create this business,” Charlie says. “Over 15 years I have put everything that I have into this business. My heart and my soul. It’s not just a job for me.” The meetings were held by Jackson Lewis, a firm hired by Charlie and Andy Nelson for the purpose of worker education. According to employees who attended, during the meetings they went over workers' current benefits, only to tell employees that those benefits would go away if they formed a union. In recordings of those meetings obtained by Defector, the union educator can be heard saying that the co-owners had received a petition from the labor board that workers were going to have a vote. The educator goes on to say that she has regular downloads with Andy and Charlie about the state of the union organizing, and, paraphrasing one of the co-owners, she says: “He's like, ‘You know, I just feel like maybe, you know, they don't see my heart,’” and reveals that the owners were worried about losing their company. At one point in the recording the representative can be heard saying: “Whether you obtain better pay and benefits, just remember that there are no guarantees. I've heard a lot of things in these sessions where people are saying they’re gonna get 18 or 20 bucks an hour or get free health care. I mean, you can propose that. You can propose whatever you desire. But the law says that there's a tradeoff, so you might gain some of that. They might take some other stuff that you get, or you might end up with exactly the same thing because collective bargaining can be that it goes back and forth and whenever they agree on something that will be the contract.”
Employees seemed to disagree about the nature of the meetings. Another employee who asked to not be named said that the “union education” meetings were required for employees, as in, they were taken out of work to attend them. Even though those meetings were supposedly neutral, she did notice something: “It was very interesting to me to actually be pulled out of doing my work to do that, whereas all of the union meetings were all absolutely voluntary.” Employees could opt to leave, but she reasoned it would signify that if they didn’t attend, they were therefore easier to spot from management as “pro-union.” Around this time she noticed the communication between managers and employees changed: “All of a sudden management wanted to talk with people individually about everything that was going on and it's not something I had seen to that extent in working there before. And so it was just like a massive change and how they were talking to employees.” Chris Branum, Director of Organizing for UFCWU 1995, advised the organizers at Nelson’s over email: “as expected this third party has told you that someone misled you in signing the cards. Under federal law, workers need to obtain 30% of the workers signing cards to have an election. You as a group obtained over 80%.”
Because they had reached 80 percent signage, things were looking optimistic. In emails obtained by Defector from the weeks before the election, supporters detailed their reasons for voting yes. One employee wrote: “I’ve worked in bottling/production with many of you for years. I’ve given hundreds of tours in the building, and worked tons of off-site tasting events in efforts to promote our beloved brands. I value this place, our products, and more importantly our people[...] I’m voting YES because our hard-working (but often under appreciated) production team smashes goals on a regular basis. More product is being harvested, produced, bottled, and shipped than ever before, and it's done in the blistering heat of summer and in the freezing cold of winter.” The staffer goes on to say: “Do free lunches help them pay to fix the car they need to get to work? Whiskey, sports tickets, and work jackets are nice perks, but do they cover the cost of necessary medicine needed by some team members?”
Ballots went out on January 18th, 2022. And then, on the morning of February 9th, the votes were counted. People filed into a room and watched as the results came in over a Zoom call. And before their eyes, the news hit them: They’d lost. “They did it. Their efforts worked. Very disappointed,” a staffer who asked to not be named for fear of retaliation told me. After securing a majority of signatures from workers, the hours spent meeting together and talking through their shared goals, it all evaporated. “The fact that it changed that much was kind of crazy to me,” she said.
In the aftermath of the vote there were no immediate answers, but plenty of questions. While reeling from the loss and scratching their heads, the would-be union members now had to go back to work as usual. Lancaster looked back on the fight with some guilt for not doing more. “I wish I could have done a better way to illustrate how power works. And how Charlie Nelson doesn't have autonomy over the business. It is a corporate entity. I would have stressed a little bit more about workplace democracy and transparency.” But he’s certain that a union is the best path for workers, especially in Tennessee, where right-to-work laws and and low minimum wage can make employment precarious at times. “So there's nothing stopping a company like Constellation from taking everyone from $15 an hour or whatever you're making down to $7.25. That can happen tomorrow. There's nothing you can do about it. But unions can protect you,” he said.
Aidan reasons that the union could have gone through if he and Lancaster and the rest of the organizers had repeatedly affirmed the benefits for unionizing with staffers who may have not agreed with them. He says that communication between different parts of the distillery could have been something to focus on better. “Front of house held at just over fifty percent, but back of house got decimated," Aidan said, recounting the vote. “You need constant individualized pushback to company propaganda, which we didn’t have.” Another employee saw a simpler explanation: “I think the biggest one was time,” she said. “Because of Covid, because of being unable to do an in-person election. It allowed for management and other coworkers to be able to talk about things and spread rumors and try to get people to vote one way or another.” The workers could barely coalesce between different parts of the facility, which management could use to divide the front of the house and the workers behind the scenes. “The pandemic put a leash on where we could go in the building,” another employee told me.
Other employees agreed that management’s appeal to hearts and minds was effective. “I thought that they did a very good job appealing to a certain portion of our workforce that is probably more susceptible to those emotional mind games. Some people are fearful of losing their job. And it worked,” said an anonymous employee who wished to not be named for fear of retaliation. On the Friday before the election, Lancaster says Charlie appealed directly to the workers. “He read off of a sheet of paper that had prepared statements where he alleged that if you vote for the union, you're going to lose all of the great benefits that we're currently giving you. And he made an appeal begging people to vote no,” he said. Another employee, a back of house worker, put it more bluntly: “Management tried to pull at people's heartstrings.” Multiple employees told me that the emotional appeal along these lines to workers seemed like a tactic that worked to change minds. Luce, the labor expert, told me that this is a common tactic management uses, especially in family-owned companies, “It kind of plays on the idea that a lot of people actually don't want conflict in their workplace. They want to be a team player. The anti-union consultants have kind of really picked up on that. It doesn’t always work, but it can work” she says.
One worker relayed to me by text message that for employees who ultimately voted no in the election, there were some general reasons for concern: “I think some of the new folks were scared to rock the boat[...] I also think some people believed that even if the union passed, we might not get paid what we make now[...] Some also probably thought certain ‘perks’ would be taken away,” he wrote. Another employee who asked not to be named mentioned that the union education meetings did not strike him as biased or union busting, but were helpful. “That's honestly not how they were presented in the ones that I sat in on,” he said. Another employee who voted against the union agreed: “I had two meetings with them. They made sure our rights were clear to us and that we didn't do anything or nobody crossed the line to us. And when it came to voting [they] made sure our vote counted.” He felt that news coverage of the union failure in the past was significantly biased and was dismayed that it affected the reputation of the company. He felt frustrated by the way pro-union staffers were talking about their work experience. “They were constantly talking about how management was pressuring people and how they brought union busters and all this stuff. And I have never felt pressured by management,” he said.
Another explanation? For Employees new to the company it may have been too much information all at the same time, one worker told me. “You're trying to learn all this new information. The history, the whiskey, the tasting notes, the building itself. And when you're trying to learn this and get this stuff in your head, you're hearing union this, union that every single day. So it was a lot, it was aggressive is not a good word for it, but I could see it being overwhelming for some people,” he said.
One question Lancaster and the other organizers have had to consider is just how deep the support was for a union among the small workforce at the distillery. A majority of workers signing up for organizing doesn't necessarily translate into full support for a union: “I think people signed cards and then quickly got scared,” another employee told me who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. Aidan, frustrated by the way the votes shook out, now sees the cracks that emerged. “It looks like we got shelled. We probably should have been having these conversations the whole way. Like, we're 100 percent sure that we're going to vote yes, right? Who are people who are sympathetic, but maybe not 100 percent? You know, starting to map that out and then being like, what are our paths to victory?”
Another employee I spoke to who was not in support of the union boiled the union’s failure down this way: “People signed cards and we had such a strong support at the beginning because they were kind of forced to. It wasn't necessarily people doing it because they wanted it. It was a very small minority that were very passionate,” he said. This employee made sure to note that they felt management at Nelson’s ultimately does care about staffers and their well being, and did not feel that the union was looking out for everyone’s interests.
Those employees who saw the organizing effort through to the end view the experience as an exercise in how to fight for fairness in the workplace. “I learned a lot about how much just one person's voice[…]you can change business,” said Jackie, a former employee. He says he was raised to think of work in a very specific way: be quiet, always say yes, and do exactly what the employer tells you. That’s how you move up in life and at work, he says. But going through the process of trying to unionize at the distillery changed a lot of what he previously thought about being a worker, earning wages, participating in both a local and personal economy. “I deserve to be respected. If I'm not going to be respected then I can either make them listen or leave and find a better job. Right?” After leaving the distillery he moved west to Portland, Oregon, for a period before returning to Nashville, where he now works in a coffee shop. “Starbucks all across the nation are unionizing and they're fighting for higher wages and better and better treatment. And that's something that has stuck with me is the fact that I can demand things," he said. "You gotta fight for yourself because no one else is going to fight for you.”
Looking into the future, I asked Aidan how things look for another unionizing attempt in the future. “Bleak,” he says, without hesitation. A back of house employee also seemed uncertain: “I think this was a learning experience for everyone who worked here. We don't quite know what the future holds.” Union busting campaigns are becoming more and more sophisticated, Luce stressed. This creates an even higher bar for unions to be successful long term. “Better campaigns are able to anticipate and think three steps ahead and to predict this is what the employer might do, how will we respond,” she said. ”They're able to kind of educate themselves. Okay, what do we do when the boss comes to you and promises you a raise if you don't vote for the union? Or what do you do if the boss threatens you, you know, trying to play that out.”
But if nothing changes at Nelson’s, Aidan says that his outlook for the future is different. He wants to work in any job that has a high likelihood of the job being unionized. “God, I would fucking love that. It's something where it almost feels like a pipe dream. The thought of working in a unionized workplace in a state that is so union poor as Tennessee, it kind of feels impossible at points,” he said. “But I can't necessarily go chasing union jobs, I have to think about what I can do to pay the bills before that.”
But Lancaster says that since things have not gotten better, the staff might be poised to win this next go around. According to workers Defector spoke with, Constellation recently increased pay company-wide by about $2 for employees, and raised the starting rate by $1.50, bringing the hourly rate to $16 an hour for front of house workers. One employee who was not in support of the union stressed that he felt that things had started to change for the better. “There's always going to be more room for improvement. And more money has already been given,” he said. Meanwhile, Lancaster says right now there is a multi-million dollar expansion plan in the works at Nelson’s and workers are questioning where money for this is coming from and why it’s going into effect. A floorplan of the new construction was obtained by Defector, which includes space for a full service restaurant, multiple private tasting rooms, and an expanded production facility. That’s not the only change in the air. Lancaster says new hires who came on after the union failed are reaping the benefits of the original campaign, already asking questions about conditions in the distillery. He notes that some are already frustrated by worker demands going unaddressed by management.
Lancaster still wears his UFCW pin everyday on the job—on his employee badge, he stresses. Some days he throws on an Industrial Workers of the World belt belt buckle. He went down to two days a week from the full time hours he had before, meaning he no longer has health benefits. But now he has an internship at Laborers International Union of North America this summer. Despite the loss, uneven morale or even turnover by employees within the distillery, he doesn’t flinch when I ask him if he thinks there is a future for the union at Nelson’s.
“We are in a good position to win.”