Business & Economics

The Left’s Long March Against Coors

‘Brewing a Boycott’ describes 30 years of shunning with a flat result

Coors brewery in Golden, Colo. Image Credit: Yassie/Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to social media, pressure campaigns against companies are now so easily initiated and expanded that their number overwhelms even the most conscious consumer. These passionate dust storms frequently take on a political character that transcends any particular corporate product or process. The internet enables this escalation from specific beef to popular cause.

But there’s a vivid pre-web example—probably the pioneer example—of this sort of effort, and it is the subject of a new book, “Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade Consumer Activism.” The crusade against Coors Brewing Co.—an apt term because it lasted a good 30 years—featured many elements of what now would be called (sympathetically or sarcastically, depending on your outlook) a social-justice struggle.

That is how—sympathetically—the history is told by Allyson P. Brantley, an assistant professor at California’s University of La Verne. The era she explores extends from 1957 to 1987, although for some diehards the boycott didn’t end there, or ever. Brantley, who acknowledges she “discovered” this chapter of the 148-year-old Coors brewing story only as she began her research in 2010, tells the tale from the side of the company’s detractors. She does a thorough job of it, but this is not journalism. If Brantley made any attempt to hear from the company or founding family directly, she doesn’t say.

In the old days, including most of the boycott period, that point would have been moot: Brewery heirs Bill and Joe Coors had no time for such a nuisance. They ran the company and their personal affairs as they wished, interlopers be damned. However, in the author’s estimation, the experience with “grassroots activism” left Coors Brewing “unnerved, frustrated and ultimately changed.” This victory for the boycotters is a lesson or model for what plays out in the corporate world today. That it was also, in the end, a marketing triumph for Coors explains why a young left-wing academic would need to unearth the contentious past of a mass-market brand that nowadays presents like any other good-times guzzle.

Labor Struggles and Coalition Building

The clash with Coors began with labor. The Colorado company lived with a mostly cooperative union at the brewery until workers grew more militant in the early 1950s. At the same time, Brantley writes, third-generation bosses Bill and Joe were making Coors part of the “shock troops” of family businesses bucking organized labor in the postwar U.S. Friction and grievances mounted, and the AFL-CIO local went on strike in 1957 with a standard “do not patronize” picket. Management used replacement staff to outmaneuver the union within 117 days. Most strikers returned to work, but the conflict was just beginning. Coors would employ various means—psychological probing, lie detectors, right-wing pamphlets—to steer the plant away from more such nonsense. It would come to regret those and other provocations.

Away from the mostly friendly Rocky Mountain area, more labor trouble ensued. Coors through the 1960s limited its distribution to the West (adding to its cachet elsewhere), but the vital California market especially brought brushes with Teamster units. At various stages the boycott resumed. Particularly around San Francisco, a political hotbed, new foes would ideologize the fight. Brantley usefully describes the odd couplings with the often-reactionary Teamsters that resulted.

Back in Colorado, other discord was brewing. Chicano activists in a veterans group, the American GI Forum, alleged prolonged employment discrimination at Coors. The numbers painted a damning case in a state whose ethnic character was changing, and the brewer and its fermenting boycott proved a ripe opportunity for young radicals inspired by the United Farmworkers’ battles with grape growers and the Gallo wine family in California. (The Coors and Gallo boycotts grew intertwined at various junctures, although Coors proved a more sweeping political target.)

A third prong in the consumer campaign against the brewery emerged from the gathering gay rights movement. Part of the Colorado labor profiling of which Coors was accused involved sexual orientation and practices. This invasion-of-privacy opening gave another left-leaning constituency a dog in the fight. But the LGBTQ issues soon occupied a bigger stage. The third-generation Coors, particularly Joe and his wife, Holly, were increasingly active in New Right politics nationally, and open homosexuality was then one of its burning issues. Later the couple would figure in the presidential ambit of Ronald Reagan, further inviting what grew to be a full-court progressive press.

At various points, Brantley identifies other parts of the “political praxis . . .reflecting and revealing the colors and crises of the era” that aligned against Coors: feminists, Black civil-rights figures, anti-Contras in Central America, environmentalists, Native Americans, Catholic clergy, Paul Newman and of course college Student Senates far and wide. A family that self-identified with the spring waters of the Rockies was shunned in gay bars along with Anita Bryant and Florida orange juice. Economically, Coors was (rather more accurately) cast as being at the vanguard of what the author and others on the left condemn as “neoliberalism.”

Coors Fights Back

Yet the breadth of the boycott coalition would contribute to its undoing. The Coors company, although flummoxed as its detractors seemed to multiply—“It’s amazing how they crank it up,” Bill Coors complained as late as 1987—was itself changing form. It sold stock to the public beginning in 1975, and a fourth generation—most notably Joe’s sons, Jeff and Pete—rose into leadership with conservative instincts but rounder edges. The beer label widened distribution to the East, attracting new enemies but demanding more cosmopolitan ways. (Eventually, it would merge with rival Miller and then with Molson of Canada. Colorado’s sway diminished, though Coors heirs continue to serve on the board, with Pete as chairman. CoorsTek, grown out of a big ceramics unit that had been part of the brewery’s wars, stays privately held by the family.)

In Brantley’s saga, the counteroffensive that undid the anti-Coors coalition took different forms. A key element was management tweaking its approach to labor that had lit the fuse to begin with. Working with Lane Kirkland’s AFL-CIO in 1987, Coors agreed to allow freer organizing at the brewery and made other concessions in return for an official end to the boycott. Were Kirkland’s own politics, at odds with many of Coors’ left-wing opponents, a factor? The author doesn’t assess. But as she tellingly notes, the owners continued their mastery inside the gates nonetheless: When the unionization vote was held in 1988, it lost—just as most of labor’s thrusts had, going back to 1957.

In the meantime, Coors used marketing muscle and philanthropic partnerships to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars to win back (or “buy off”) established groups among the boycott bunch, such as the NAACP, GLAAD and the National Council of La Raza. The company pursued diversity internally while sponsoring AIDS walks and screenings of “The Milagro Beanfield War.” It placed on Working Mother magazine’s best employers list. Still, some of the fizz had gone out of a once-celebrated brand.

Bitter pockets of opposition continued into the 1990s and beyond, but faced with a modernized corporation and now without centralized union backing, the book says, “an atomized boycott movement” was capable of only sporadic upset. Some protests were mere trigger tantrums: Ethnic activists complained of “disrespect” in 2013, when Coors Light became the cerveza oficial of New York’s Puerto Rican Day Parade and put the commonwealth’s flag on its cans.

Lessons Learned?

As Coors brews away, what are we left to conclude from its long siege? Even as Brantley sketches out the company’s shifting nature, she fails to add texture to a stick-figure adversary that is never heard from directly. For all of its labor strife, Coors was in some respects an enlightened employer and an innovator—it led the shift to recyclable aluminum cans for beer. Bill Coors, who lived to 102, pursued causes such as alternative medicine that didn’t fit a political box, and the clan as a whole grew more heterodox. We don’t learn enough about them in the book, or if they’ve really changed.

Yet on the prospects for meta-boycotts, of the sort that might haunt a politically incorrect enterprise such as Chick-fil-A or Hobby Lobby, “Brewing” is an instructive account. There will be lost sales and reputational bruising, but a commercial force can endure. As “name” organizations on the left get picked off one by one by Coors, Brantley’s story keeps faith with a core group—unionists, Latinos, LGBTQ individuals—who feel abandoned. In the latter half of the 20th century, sustaining a mass “grassroots” protest was exhausting. Today, by contrast, it is easy to troll online, and to do so for years and years as one wishes. Surely, it is possible to galvanize such “resistance” in nano time. In the long run, however, a wily corporate foe seems just as able to hold to some bottom line as a “changed” Coors was back then.

Brantley offers her kindred readers this balm: “Boycotts invite debate, spark conversations about consumer citizenship, and help forge solidarity across space and time. They have an expressive, community-building impact, communicating personal and shared values, even when they fall short instrumentally.”

Modern solidarity can be had with much greater ease from your Twitter feed. It might get you an abject apology from an objectionable company or, if both sides are so inclined, a good-sized grant. But it still won’t ensure a union contract.

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