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Listen Up, Ya’ll!

Brian Buck

Being a bourbon aficionado, my heart skipped a beat when I heard that Jim Beam workers had voted to strike. (I was a bit relieved to find out that my beloved Maker’s Mark would be unaffected!) Employees and management had been negotiating for nearly 7-months on a new contract. Two previous proposals had been turned down by the employees before they voted to strike.

The main reason for the prolonged negotiation and eventual strike appeared to be because management was not listening to their employees. "The people who started out negotiations were either really out of touch or were given the wrong direction," said Janelle Mudd, president of Union Food and Commercial Workers 111D.

The issue for the workers was not more pay or better health care but, rather, greater work-life balance. With the boom of bourbon, demand has been through the roof and so has production. Last year, Kentucky’s bourbon production reached a nearly 50-year high. As production grew, the number of employees stayed fairly static which meant those who were there at the start of the boom were asked to carry the burden of the boom which has been in full swing over the last 5 years.  With many employees working mandatory 60 to 80-hour work weeks; it had just become too much.

Why didn’t management hear the employee’s concerns? Often times I see negotiations break down because of ego. For whatever reason, one side is determined to win at all costs. Great negotiators put ego aside and worry less about who wins and more about creating deals that addresses everyone’s needs. To do that, they listen and ask questions. They spend time learning about the other party’s issues. They explore where the other party might be flexible and where they are not. They pay careful attention to the other party’s words so that they can use those words when crafting solutions and proposals.

Mudd said, “Once the new group came in, they listened, they understood and they want the same things we want. So it seems we're on the same page." So, how did they get there? According to Fox Business, they got everyone on the same page following management listening sessions that allowed workers to voice grievances.

After nearly a week of being on strike, workers voted to end the strike by a reported vote of 204-19. David Hunter, Chief Supply Chain Officer of Beam Suntory, in a press release, said, “The successful resolution of this matter resulted from constructive good-faith dialogue with the union leadership and valuable listening sessions with a broad cross section of team members." He continued, "We developed solutions that include less reliance on temporary workers, better management of overtime, and a number of improvements to promote work-life balance. This contract builds on the values shared by our company and our workforce and will help make these plants even better places to work."

Crisis averted. As soon as both sides started listening, a deal was struck within days. Not listening cost them 7-months of frustrating go-no-where negotiations. Let this be a lesson… save time and listen up, ya’ll!


-Brian Buck

Brian Buck
More by Brian Buck:
"No" Means "Go"!
The DIY Dilemma
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