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This Day in Labor History: August 19, 1987

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On August 19, 1987, the AFL-CIO called off its long-standing boycott against Coors beer, one of the more iconic boycotts in American history and one that reminds us what a loathsome family the Coors brood remain.

Coors was a truly reprehensible company, owned by Nazi-sympathizing fascists determined to turn the United States on a hard-right bent. Joe Coors for instance was the key player in starting the right-wing media networks that led to Fox News, just as one example of this awful family. Joe Coors was also president of the company in 1977, when the boycott began. Coors also treated its workers terribly. One of the things it liked to do was subject its workers to required polygraph tests. This came out of the murder of Adolph Coors III back in 1960, but was used far and wide to discover any sort of labor agitation in the company’s home of Golden.

There were several reasons for the union boycotts of Coors that went back to the 1950s. First, while the brewery industry was heavily unionized, Coors was a long-standing holdout, with few unions in its plants. The Coors family hated unions and would do anything possible to keep them out of their factories. But this was not the only reason. Coors openly discriminated against Black Americans, Mexican-Americans and gay Americans, refusing to hire any of them except in the most menial positions. The first boycott against Coors came out of a union effort in 1957, though it was not particularly effective. The modern era of boycotting Coors began in 1966 with the Crusade for Justice and the Colorado chapter of the GI Forum, focusing specifically on the company having only 2 percent of their workforce Latino and these in the most menial jobs. Coors also actively supported the grape growers being boycotted by the United Farm Workers, including using Coors trucks to get grapes from picketed farms to market. This open anti-worker mentality created a larger-scale set of boycotts by Latino organizations against Coors. When Joe Coors openly opposed the creation of Chicano Studies courses at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he was on the Board of Trustees, it only fed the fire. Over the next decade, Latino boycotts against Coors would wax and wane but would never disappear. But they didn’t have that much power to seriously hurt the bottom line for the beer giant.

In 1977, the AFL-CIO joined the boycott. This was primarily because the company was so opposed to organized labor more than it felt solidarity with the Mexican-Americans, though this would become an important part of the story. There was a very weak union in the factory, Brewery, Flour, Cereal, and Soft Drink Workers International Union Local 366. Back in 1957, these workers had gone on strike and Coors had pretty much crushed them. But keeping a very weak union on site was something in Coors’ interests precisely so that it might avoid any organized union action against them, allowing them to market their terrible swill to the nation’s workers without pushback. But in 1977, Local 366 went back on strike for two reasons. First, the polygraph tests just infuriated the workers. Second, with inflation rising fast, Coors refused to raise pay to keep up with it. So they didn’t feel that had too much to lose. Unlike in 1957, the entirety of organized labor realized this was an important campaign and thus used the power of the federation to push for a larger boycott of the beer.

The strike was a disaster. Coors won and the union disappeared from the plant. But the boycott continued, with the federation attempting to punish the fascists who ran the company. As it grew, it merged in alliance with the other groups seeking to boycott the company, including civil rights organizations and a new boycott by gay organizations furious over the no-hiring policy Joe Coors and his family placed against them. At the same time, Coors wanted to go from a western brewery dynasty to a national one and this boycott could get in the way. For reasons that seem utterly incomprehensible now, there was a real national mystique over Coors and people wanted to drink it so a lot of drinkers around the nation were genuinely excited to have access to this beer. This was both a problem and an opportunity for the AFL-CIO and its allies.

The boycotters would do things such as disrupt the Coors Classic, a major Colorado bike race, in 1980. At the University of Colorado-Boulder that year, labor, students, and community members united against the company for an action at the race. They produced a filer that read:

“What do bicycle races, boycotts and beer have in common? All three are produced by Coors. You may have wondered why Coors took such a sudden interest in bicycle racing. It’s all part of a $60 million campaign to combat a national boycott endorsed by labor, women, students, Chicanos and many others offended by Coors over the years.”

They also focused on Coors’ hatred of environmental regulations, which mattered a lot more to Coloradoans than labor issues, quite honestly. The race did continue, but it gave Coors real negative publicity it did not want and eventually it stopped its sponsorship of the annual race. The growing gay rights movement played a hugely critical role as well, as its leaders pushed the boycott hard in what was, pre-AIDS, a pretty depoliticized community that largely wanted to be left alone. But sales of Coors in gay bars plummeted as knowledge of the company’s discrimination in hiring became more well-known.

This all had a very real impact on Coors sales. In 1977, Coors had 40 percent of California’s beer market. By 1984, that had declined all the way to 14 percent. Given the size of that state, this is millions of dollars per year. Playing an absolutely critical role was the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union with an unusual principled position on solidarity that has proven critical in supporting strikes for decades. The Teamsters hoped to organize Coors workers and did critical work throughout the boycott. Now, Joe Coors and family probably would have seen the company die before giving up its anti-union position. The boycott continued to grow, with non-federation member unions such as the National Education Association, as well as other liberal allies such as the National Organization of Women, joining up. But in 1987, the AFL-CIO and Coors finally came to a deal to end the boycott, which included greater hiring of minorities and women, which the company has done. Part of the deal also included using union labor to build the new Coors facility in Virginia and allowing a vote on unionizing the Colorado plant, which the Teamsters led. Unfortunately, workers voted that down after a big anti-union campaign by the company. Many were also quite angry with the federation for calling it off, noting they didn’t engage in a decade-long action so that a few union construction workers could build a single facility. Unofficially, many on the left continued boycotting Coors for years. It’s still a horrifying company with terrible values, but at least there has been some progress made on hiring issues, thanks in no small part to the AFL-CIO joining the boycott against Coors started by people of color a decade earlier.

Even today, Coors is reportedly difficult to find at many gay bars around the nation for its horrific politics.

This is the 405th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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