The Coors Boycott, 1987

March 27, 2004

In 1987, because I had included Coors Winterfest in an article about Christmas beers in 1986, the Syracuse New Times received a letter from the local council of the AFL-CIO expressing astonishment that such a liberal, alternative publication would include any mention of this notoriously anti-union brewery. The letter was accompanied by a half-inch stack of photocopied documentation. The editor forwarded the stack to me, and I did something no one else had done — I read it. In the union-supplied documents, I found the answers to most of the questions the union raised on their summary sheet. I also found the summary to be filled with half-truths and twisted facts.

I wrote the following article in response. Not because I am a Conservative — I was not; I am not. Nor because I liked Coors beer or the Coors family. I wrote the piece because I dislike lies and liars.

The results were predictable. No one denied the truth of what I’d said; they simply brought up other points or shouted the original charges louder, as if that would make them more true. One night, I spoke with a student interning with the AFL-CIO. He went through each of the union’s charges. I patiently refuted each claim, pointed out the parts of the truth they had purposely left out. We spoke for an hour, and at the end, with every one of his arguments refuted, he said, “But they’re bastards!”

Why was there a boycott? The reason is very simple, and had nothing to do with human rights or the environment. It was about power.

The presence of a non-union brewery in the United States made it impossible for the AFL-CIO to strike at the other major breweries. When the union strikes a brewery, production slows or stops. Wholesalers, retailers and ultimately consumers cannot get the brewery’s beers. So consumers turn to other beers. In a nation where only some of the brewers are unionized, some of those other beers will be from non-union breweries. And when the strike is over, not all of the drinkers will return to their regular beer. Many will continue to drink a non-union beer, like Coors, their new regular beer. With fewer customers after the strike, the union brewery will sell less beer, make less money, and employ fewer workers. Union workers, who pay dues, will be let go. Non-union workers will be added to breweries whose customer bases have increased. So the union loses members and money, grows smaller and weaker.

Hence the union cannot strike a union brewery without helping non-union breweries, ultimately shrinking and hurting the union itself.

Here’s the original piece, with a notes in brackets where I added new information. This article, by the way, is not an invitation to argue.

* * *

March 25, 1987

Our feature on Christmas beers (Dec. 24, 1986) inadvertently touched off the first local salvo in a 10-year traveling controversy between organized labor and the Adolph Coors Company, a Colorado-based company that owns the nation’s fifth-largest brewery.

Following the article’s appearance, Thomas L. Warzecha of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization’s Greater Syracuse Labor Council wrote to the paper, “The article was accompanied by a picture of one of the most anti-union, anti-consumer companies, and one with the worst environmental record of all the beer companies in the United States, the one and only Coors. How could a publication such as yours display a product of a company with a record as bad as Coors?”

With the letter came a half-inch stack of photocopies from the AFL-CIO, clearly intended to seal the guilt of the Adolph Coors Company and lead to support for a boycott of its products. Upon examination, however, the union-provided materials proved to be filled with undocumented accusations, half-truths, exaggerations, contradictions and out-of-date information.

The Adolph Coors Company has confronted the AFL-CIO accusations by sending spokespersons to New York state and responding to calls and letters. The company is especially concerned about its local image because it begins distributing its beers (Coors, Coors Light, George Killian’s Irish Red, and possibly Herman Joseph’s and Extra Gold, two beers currently being test-marketed) to Central New York retailers beginning March 30. It is already on tap in many local taverns.

Unions have been present at Coors Brewing since 1934, when Adolph Coors Jr. invited representation of his work force. The union-sponsored boycott against Coors began officially in 1977, during a strike by Brewery Workers Local 366 in Golden, Colorado.

As with all previous strikes at Coors, the union lost. Before the strike’s end, 75% of the strikers had returned to work and Coors had hired new workers to replace the rest. In December 1978, the employees held a recertification ballot and voted out Local 366 by a 2-1 margin, 933-408.

The scenario is not unusual. From 1975 to 1987, unions lost more than half of all representation elections and three out of every four recertification elections. In the United States, union membership has declined to 16.1% of the workforce.

[In 2003, union representation was down to 12.9%; in 2011, 11.8%. — U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.]

Losing the battle, the AFL-CIO chose to widen the war. Former 11-year Coors employee and Local 366 president David Sickler continues to lead the boycott which chases Coors around the country, targeting union councils, city councils, college students and the press.

Caught in the middle of pro- and anti-boycott publicity is Owasco Beverage Corporation of Syracuse. A Central New York business of 40 years’ standing, selling two million cases of beer annually, Owasco will be the area distributor for the Coors line of beers. It is investing $2.5 million in a new warehouse in Clay that will have 85,000 square feet of space; 12,000 square feet of it is refrigerated especially for Coors products, which must be kept cold.

Although Owasco has good union relations with its Teamsters Union employees, General Manager Bob Merriam is concerned by the negative publicity that follows the Coors company. “I just want people to see the facts behind both sides of the argument,” he says. “I hope people give us a chance.”

Of Coors, he states, “I believe they’ve corrected their mistakes.” And much available evidence suggests Merriam is right.

The Adolph Coors Company of 1987 seems to bear little resemblance to the picture painted by the AFL-CIO. But if the experience of other cities holds true, you will hear plenty of accusations and rumors on your way to the cooler. Common charges include claims that the company engages in racist, anti-union, anti-gay and anti-woman employment practices, forces employees to take lie detector tests, conducts frequent search-and-seizure raids and pollutes the environment.

According to Coors, however, the company’s workforce has minority representation of 17.5 percent, women’s representation of 22 percent and veteran’s representation of 32 percent. Lie detector tests were discontinued in August 1986, and the last employee complaint about abuse of the practice occurred in 1974. The last documented case of search and seizure occurred in 1976.

The current average income for a production worker on universal shifts at Coors is $35,000 a year, backed by expansive health and medical benefits and continuing education subsidies. Many outside sources verify that worker satisfaction is high. The company receives 50,000 job applications each year, with only a 3 percent annual turnover.

In 1985, Fritz Maytag, owner of the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, called Coors “the finest big brewery in the world.”

The AFL-CIO’s case rests on a preponderance of old statistics and contradictory information. In trying to establish racist employment practices, for example, AFL-CIO materials avoid current figures and feature a statement from David Sickler noting that in 1964 he was aware of only one Black and four or five Mexican-Americans at the brewery. The AFL-CIO’s most recent figures — at least those provided to journalists — are 10 years old, putting minority representation at 13 percent at the time of the 1977 strike.

To enlist sympathy, one item claims the strikers were “largely Hispanic.” But to show racism, another item says Hispanics comprised only 6 percent of the workforce.

In September 1984, the Coors company signed an agreement with NAACP leaders pledging $325 million to promote development in Black communities; the AFL-CIO described it as an attempt to buy relations Coors couldn’t earn. When Coors reached a similar agreement with Hispanic leaders two months later, AFL-CIO spokesmen and Hispanic leaders who were not involved in the agreement called it a sham and a gimmick to promote beer sales.

Coors official Frank Solis responded, “This is an attempt to continue our involvement in the community, and there are factions that criticize us for doing something that they’ve criticized us for not doing in the past.”

In supporting the anti-woman charges, AFL-CIO materials again avoid recent figures, and those cited contradict one another. One study says 3 percent of the brewery workforce was female in 1977; another puts it at 7 percent in 1975, two years earlier.

Ironically, the strike itself enabled Coors to increase the percentage of women in the brewery’s workforce to 16 percent in 1977. Coors Vice President for Employee Relations Gerry Kaveny noted, in a document supplied by the AFL-CIO, “We have improved upon our affirmative action goals and timetables since many strikers were permanently replaced with women and minority persons, which may have otherwise taken years to accomplish.”

The union’s documentation on the issues of polygraph testing and search-and-seizure appears equally flimsy.

National boycott leader Sickler, in fact, might wish he could take back a few words he said to Mike Wallace on the September 26, 1982, edition of 60 Minutes:

Wallace: …all kinds of companies (use polygraph testing) and you’re not boycotting them.
Sickler: No, we don’t, and many, many of those companies have union contracts, Mike.
Wallace: That’s really the nub of the issue.
Sickler: That’s right.
Wallace: They got rid of the union.
Sickler: That’s right.

Despite this admission, and even though Coors discontinued all employee polygraph testing on August 31, 1986, the polygraph charge is still being made on numerous pieces circulated by the AFL-CIO.

The 60 Minutes segment also investigated the charges of forced searches and seizures. Sickler was asked if he knew of any instances in the past five years (prior to 1982). “I have no example,” he replied.

From his total experience, Sickler offered only Jerry Berella, a Coors employee who was fired after marijuana was found in his truck. 60 Minutes interviewed Berella, who said such searches were rare. “The way I look at things,” he said, “if they’re good enough to give you a paycheck every two weeks, then you’d better do what they say. Coors is known to be one of the best places to work in Denver.”

Other AFL-CIO materials criticize the Coors company on environmental issues, charging Coors Packaging Company with dumping industrial wastes into a privately owned landfill near Denver in 1983. The same article, however, notes Coors was one of 175 companies using the site, and the dumping was legal.

[Other sources put the number of users as high as 250. The Lowry Landfill was owned and operated from 1950 to 1980 by the City and County of Denver. Users included Conoco, Denver Metro Wastewater, the City of Denver, The Denver Post, the Environmental Protection Agency (pesticides and lab wastes), Hewlett Packard, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Rockwell’s Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant (which made plutonium bomb triggers) and The Rocky Mountain News.]

[Some sources note that a division of the Adolph Coors Company produced nuclear fuel rods for the AEC in the 1960’s, hinting that the company’s dumping also included radioactive material. However, according to the most recent allegations, the source of radioactive waste appears to be wastewater from the Rocky Flats plant that was trucked in by milk tankers and dumped under the cover of darkness in the 1960’s. The EPA declared Lowry a Superfund site in 1984. The 480 acres now hold 150 million gallons of toxic waste. It’s a mess.]

Coors literature and third-party sources, on the other hand, cite the Coors company as a leader in the recycling of energy, oil, glass, plastic and aluminum, as well as in water treatment, air-quality monitoring and advanced pollution controls.

In 1959, Coors pioneered aluminum can recycling, manufacturing its own cans and offering a penny for every returned can. In the years to come, they also accepted other brewers’ aluminum cans. The program worked so well that Coors was soon recycling more than 100% of its aluminum.

On the environment and other issues, the AFL-CIO uses another tactic: blurring the distinction between individual members of the Coors family and the company that bears its name. And there’s no denying the Coors family includes some people with ultraconservative political views. After Joseph Coors died in 2003, his brother William Coors said, “… we got along a lot better if we didn’t talk politics. He was conservative as they come. I mean, he was a little bit right of Attila the Hun.”

The main union rationale for the claim that the Coors company is anti-environment stems not from the company’s actions but from the personal politics of Joseph Coors, vice chairman of the brewery. The AFL-CIO cites him (accurately) as a patron and ally of former Interior Secretary James Watt, ousted Environmental Protection Agency Director Anne Gorsuch Burford and President Ronald Reagan.

The AFL-CIO also charges brewery chairman William Coors with racist comments made in speeches in 1964 and 1984.

One of the most famous flare-ups came in 1984 when William Coors was an invited speaker at a Denver association of Afro-American businessmen. Coors was talking about the situation in Zimbabwe, the nation that used to be Rhodesia. In comparing the white colonial government of Rhodesia with the black government of Zimbabwe, he cited the collapse of the nation’s economy and said that the leaders of the current government “lacked the intellectual capacity to succeed and it was taking them down the tubes.”

A reporter for the Rocky Mountain News printed that statement as follows: “Coors said blacks ‘lacked lacked the intellectual capacity to succeed and it was taking them down the tubes.'” The reporter knew that Coors was talking specifically about the black leaders of Zimbabwe, but chose to broaden Coors’ statement to include all black people.

By lunchtime, the article had been faxed to every union hall in the United States. The next day, it was in every newspaper in the United States. William Coors and the Coors Brewing Company both sued the Rocky Mountain News for libel. They asked not for money, but simply for a correction and an apology. The court hearing was set for a distant date in the future.

Meanwhile, the union spread the word that William Coors had said black people lacked intellectual capacity. He hadn’t, and the union knew he had not, but they had it in print and they worked it for all it was worth. And as the article passed from paper to paper, the quotation marks mysteriously migrated to the left, so the quote now appeared as, “Blacks lack the intellectual capacity to succeed…”

In 1987, however, the Teamsters union (then separate from the AFL-CIO) announced it was going to organize the workers at the brewery. The AFL-CIO could have gone in to organize at any time, but knew they’d lose the election. But the Teamsters thought they could do a better job. Suddenly, the AFL-CIO saw their plum passing to another union. But they could hardly continue to slander the brewery at the same time they were trying to woo the workers. So they called off the boycott — without a word of farewell to blacks, gays, women and environmentalists — and attempted again to organize.

One week after the AFL-CIO ended the boycott, and weeks before the upcoming court date for the libel suit, the Rocky Mountain News printed a retraction and an apology. On the eve of having to face the music, and after letting the lie stand for three years. Nationwide, the retraction appeared in the back pages of Editor & Publisher magazine. Bill Coors and the Coors Brewery dropped their lawsuits the following day, as they had promised, but the charge continues to circulate.

The AFL-CIO supports its anti-woman and anti-gay charges with reports of Joseph Coors’ personal contributions to conservative groups. This rationale, however, ignores the brewery’s recent hiring practices and the company’s program of minority investment. It also contributes to a distorted media picture of the dispute. In one instance, Joseph Coors contributed to a conservative woman’s group that opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. This information turned into the following editorial about the Adolph Coors Company in Boston University’s Daily Free Press: “Coors vigorously and financially opposed the Equal Rights Amendment.”

The brewery had done nothing of the kind, but David Sickler was adept at manipulating reporters for college newspapers. One of his favorite tactics was to lie to a college reporter and when the lie was printed, quote the college newspaper as the source for the lie in the next union press release. Thus he created a long list of third-party documentation for his charges, when actually he was only quoting himself. Many times, I tracked a charge back through the maze and found, ultimately, a footnote that read, “Conversation with David Sickler.”

The board of directors of the National Organization for Women (NOW) supports the boycott. They reasoned, in 1984, that the boycott of the brewery was justified because the Coors family holds 90 percent of the Coors company’s stock. The company, therefore, is the source of Joseph Coors’ ability to support organizations which oppose NOW’s viewpoint and support legislation that would restrict the rights of women, gays and minorities.

But for those who accept this principle in governing their beer purchases, the AFL-CIO offers no comparable data on shareholders in America’s other 73 breweries. A book, Rating America’s Corporate Conscience, analyzes Anheuser-Busch and Phillip Morris, parent company of Miller Brewing, by corporate behavior, but gives no information on the identity or political activities of their family members or shareholders.

The most visibly conservative member of the Coors family is now Jeff Coors, one of the late Joseph Coors’ sons. He is president and CEO of Graphic Packaging Corporation, a manufacturer of paperboard packaging with 20 plants across the United States. A portion of Graphic’s business is with Coors Brewing and the company is owned largely by Coors family trusts. People who continue to boycott the brewery’s products based on Coors family members’ politics point to these links and to Jeff’s income from Coors family trusts which in turn draw some income from the brewery.

The Adolph Coors Foundation no longer funds politically sensitive groups, but the Castle Rock Foundation, controlled by Coors family members, continues to do so. According to Bruce Mirken, a writer who has written on the Coors family for Mother Jones magazine, Castle Rock draws its income from a diverse stock portfolio which includes Procter & Gamble, Abbott Laboratories and many other companies (whom no one is suggesting we boycott), as well as shares in the Adolph Coors Company. Mirken estimates Castle Rock’s income from Coors stock at $183,000 annually.

Given the Adolph Coors Company’s annual beer sales of $3.7 billion, and annual profit of $161 million (as of 2002), an individual would have to spend more than $200 on Coors beer before he or she contributed one literal cent to Castle Rock.

But let’s say you’re really thirsty and drink $20,000 worth of Coors every year. About $1 of your money could make its way to Castle Rock. Some of Castle Rock’s most recent donations include $250,000 to Cornell University for a Rowing Center (Jeff’s a Cornell grad) and $50,000 to a pediatric hospice in Baltimore. Maybe your dollar was in that lot. But, yes, lots of Conservative groups get Castle Rock money too. But by cutting a check for $1 to your favorite liberal cause, you can easily even up the balance and drink whatever you want.

(Speaking of influencing government, in fiscal year 2002-2003, Miller Brewing spent $1.84 million on lobbying, compared with $1.49 million by Anheuser-Busch, and $360,000 by Coors Brewing Co. — Frederic J. Frommer, Associated Press, Oct. 6, 2003)

On the charges of anti-unionism, the AFL-CIO again uses the previously illustrated methods to make their case. They state that Coors broke 19 unions in 20 years, as if it were an annual affair, when, according to AFL-CIO materials, there have been only three strikes — in 1957, 1968 and 1977 — and most of the unions, all in the construction field, were broken in 1968. (One union, a small local of the Operating Engineers, remains at Coors.)

Following the pattern of half-truths and conflicting information, one AFL-CIO memo claims a 100 percent vote in the 1977 strike, while another places it at 94 percent and notes more than half the strikers returned to work within a few weeks.

The AFL-CIO also criticizes the Coors Company’s dealings with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) but only cites three cases, all from 1976 and 1977. In the first two, Coors complied with NLRB rulings, and in the third, the charge that Coors engaged in unfair labor practices during the 1977 strike was dismissed.

My favorite half-truth from the AFL-CIO was their claim that the National Labor Relations Board found that the Coors Brewing Company had favored white males in its hiring practices in the 1960s. True, but the NLRB found one other entity equally responsible for the illegal hiring practices: Local 366 of the AFL-CIO. What a convenient omission.

The actual character of William Coors’ anti-union stance was illuminated on 60 Minutes, when he agreed that he had said, “Unions are a result of poor management. From the idealistic standpoint, if management is properly concerned with the needs of the workers, not just material needs, but the health and spiritual and philosophical needs, I don’t believe a union is needed.”

The largest single report the AFL-CIO boycott circulates concludes, “We believe the central issue of the dispute between the Adolph Coors Company and the Local Union 366 is that Coors demands complete control over the conditions in the work place and unquestioning loyalty from their employees. The union is not willing to accept these conditions.”

And therein lies the heart of the decade-long disagreement. William and Joseph Coors hate being told what to do, whether by the union or the government. The AFL-CIO is 0-3 in the strike department. Nobody’s giving up, but as the Adolph Coors Company continues to improve its record in every other way, without union assistance, the AFL-CIO’s supporting claims become more and more outdated and inaccurate.

There’s also some debate about exactly how effective this 10-year boycott has been. A January 1983 memo from boycott leader David Sickler states, “The effectiveness of the Coors boycott sends a message to other employers who would otherwise adopt some of Coors’ anti-people, anti-union ways.” And a 1986 bulletin states, “Sales have dropped by millions of barrels a year since the boycott was sanctioned by the AFL-CIO in 1977.”

In fact, Coors posted record sales in 1985 and in each of the first three quarters of 1986. But the union counters that the boycott has forced Coors to expand nationally to develop new markets.

And so the controversy rolls on. In Detroit, Boston and other cities, the AFL-CIO has been successful in publicizing the boycott based on the documentation and methods described above. The local city councils and several college campuses have passed resolutions criticizing Coors.

The Greater Syracuse Labor Council is already trying to make a similar case with local media, City Hall and Syracuse University. It remains to be seen whether Central New Yorkers will believe that the AFL-CIO is fighting for justice and human rights, or if the Coors boycott will be perceived as the union’s attempt to seek revenge and set an example.

* * *

March 27, 2004

In 1987, the AFL-CIO ended its boycott of Coors and signed an agreement which reaffirmed the right of employees to decide in favor of, or against, union representation. In 1988, Coors employees at the Golden, Colorado, brewery turned down Teamsters representation.

As of 2004, Coors has a contract with the Operating Engineers local at its Golden brewery, a union in place throughout all of the controversy. Coors’ Memphis plant operates under a union contract with the Teamsters that was in place when Coors purchased the former Stroh brewery in 1990. The contract was renegotiated amicably in 1994, 1997 and 2001.

Since 1987, the Coors Brewing Company has gone from the fifth largest to the third largest brewery in the U.S.

Joseph Coors died in March of 2003. In May of 2003, William Coors retired from the Adolph Coors Company and Coors Brewing Company boards.

David Sickler is the Southern Regional Director, State Building and Construction Trades Council of California. Today they credit him with bringing the boycott to “a successful conclusion” in 1987.

* * *

:: The KKK and Nazis ::

People on the Web continue to spread some wild-ass stuff about the Coors family. The KKK and Nazi charges are especially amusing (if you’re not a member of the Coors family).

For example, this sentence from one website,”Adolph Coors Sr.’s family friend and lawyer owned Castle Rock, the monumental red-rock knob that overlooked the Coors Brewery property, and lent it to the KKK in the 1920’s for cross burnings that could be seen from all over Denver,” was morphed into, “Adolph Coors allowed KKK meetings and cross-burnings on brewery property in Colorado.”

Anyone with a grasp of history would see through this one. The KKK in the 1920s was opposed not just to Afro-Americans, but also Jews, Catholics and all immigrants. Adolph Coors Sr., himself an immigrant, would hardly have sought out an association with the Klan, or been accepted by them.

In fact, the KKK rally took place on South Table Mountain on September 27, 1923. And that was not on brewery property. The KKK also marched through Boulder and Denver, and counted the Denver Mayor, the Colorado Governor and two U.S. Senators from Colorado among their members. What were they drinking?

The site featuring the KKK-rumor also tells us, “In 1984, Bill Coors fought against passage of the Civil Rights Act, telling an audience of black businessmen that blacks don’t succeed because they ‘lack intellectual capacity.’ ” Of course, the Civil Rights Act was in 1964, but that’s an even number, right? And we’ve already discussed the Rocky Mountain News‘ error in phrasing and ultimate retraction. Apparently the Web master didn’t catch Editor & Publisher that week.

On the Nazi front, the late Joseph Coors’ board memberships triggered many charges, on the assumption that he agreed wholeheartedly with everything ever said, thought or done by every person who ever served on a board with him, or on the board of the same organization at a different time. (And he might have, but it is an sweeping assumption.)

Joe Coors’ “Nazi ties” are attributed to Paul Weyrich, who Joe Coors worked with on Conservative causes. Weyrich, in turn, worked with another man, Charles Moser, who once served on the editorial advisory board of Ukrainian Quarterly, which once ran an article which praised the Waffen SS and Ukranian collaboration with the Nazis against the Bolsheviks of Russia. Whoa, looks like a direct link to me! If only Joe were still alive to lead us to the Nazi gold.


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