Brewed Up Boycott

What the AFL-CIO doesn't tell you about Coors.


In the first half of 1983, 32½ million gallons of beer flowed into Oregon wholesale warehouses from breweries in America and 24 other countries. Not one drop of this sudsy stream, however, was produced in the world's largest brewery, that of the Adolph Coors Company in Golden, Colorado. While Coors has had the pleasure of seeing its product airlifted to Washington, D.C., by Presidents Eisenhower and Ford and featured in the top-grossing movies Smokey and the Bandit and E.T., it has been disappointed in its attempts to enter the Oregon market. Due to an obscure section of a 60-year-old law—kept in place by pressure from organized labor—Oregon has the peculiar distinction of being the only state in the nation where it is illegal to place Coors on retail shelves.

The Coors name does not appear in Oregon's statutes, but Coors is one of only two American beers affected by a provision of the Liquor Control Act stating that only "pasteurized malt beverages in brewery-sealed packages" may be sold for consumption. (Coors's companion victim is Hamm's Draft Beer.) The pasteurization of beer, like many other beverages, is for the purpose of destroying microorganisms and is usually accomplished by heating the beer after bottling or canning at 140 degrees Fahrenheit for at least five minutes.

Coors is excluded from the Oregon market because the company concluded in 1959 that heating beer to extreme temperatures has a detrimental effect on its taste. An alternative procedure was developed by Coors scientists in which three separate sets of micropore filters are used to remove microorganisms and solids prior to packaging. A 1978 study by Oregon State University microbiologists confirmed the effectiveness of the process when it stated "that the samples of Coors beer analyzed were essentially the same in microbiological quality as the Oregon retail samples." In some cases their study found Coors samples to be actually superior in purity to samples of two major brands.

For all the hoopla on the issue, though, almost 25 percent of the beer drunk by Oregonians is unpasteurized. This paradox is explained by the fact that keg beer does not undergo heat purification by any brewer, nor is it required. Unlike milk, which is pasteurized for health considerations, beer is heated to kill microorganisms that can give an off taste or odor. Draft beer, therefore, must be kept cold to prevent the bacteria from flourishing and altering its quality.

Although there is no logical reason for its existence, attempts to amend the pasteurization requirement to allow the sale of Coors in Oregon have thus far been unsuccessful. In 1979 the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) adopted an administrative rule interpreting pasteurization to include other processes producing the same microbiological quality as heating. The action was invalidated eight months later, however, when the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled—in a suit brought by the Joint Council of Teamsters—that the commission had exceeded its authority.

Senate Bill 268, with provisions similar to those of the invalidated rule, was then introduced in the 1981 legislature at the request of the OLCC but died in committee. Again in 1983, legislation to permit unpasteurized beer was introduced as Senate Bill 358. Although it was reported out of committee, it was defeated 20–8 on the senate floor.

In each of these efforts, opposition to Coors was not from doctors, public-health officials, or even other brewers trying to protect their market share. Without exception, lobbying against change in the pasteurization requirement was limited to representatives of organized labor, and they were not reticent about making their motives plain. Oregon AFL-CIO president Irvin Fletcher said straightforwardly in a committee hearing on S.B. 358, "The primary concern to me and to the members of the Oregon AFL-CIO is the ideology that follows Coors beer wherever it is sold."

Union antipathy toward the company stems from a 1977 strike at the brewery, which eventually ended in December 1978 when 71 percent of the employees voted to decertify the union. Though the strike ended more than five years ago, a nationwide boycott of Coors that started during the walkout still remains and has been endorsed by many unions and several groups of various sorts. Student activity centers at several branches of the University of California, along with some women's organizations, gay bars, and Hispanics, have all stopped serving and drinking the company's products.

Unlike most major American corporations, in which labor and management strive to maintain a distant, antiseptic relationship, Coors has a long tradition of employee relations reflecting the strong personal imprint of the company's current management. In 1934, a time when organized labor was viewed with suspicion and hostility by many Americans, Adolph Coors, Jr., invited the brewery workers union to represent his growing number of employees. Fifty years later, his two sons have a slightly different perspective. "Unions are a result of poor management," says board chairman William Coors. "If management is properly concerned with the needs of the workers—not just the material needs, but with health and spiritual and philosophical needs—then a union isn't needed." Brother Joseph, the company president, has said, "I honestly see very little appropriate role for unions in this day and age." It is such displays of candor and the union's defeat in the decertification election, more than any alleged abuse of employee rights that is responsible for the boycott of Coors.

Support for the boycott by many besides union members can be similarly explained by the Coors brothers' outspoken views and strong personal commitments to conservative causes. Joe first became a villain to the Left in the 1960s when, as a popularly elected regent of the University of Colorado, he defended faculty members against student radicals, led a successful effort to expel the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) from campus, and bankrolled an "alternate" student newspaper. In 1975, the Senate Commerce Committee vetoed his appointment by President Ford to the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Cited as a conflict of interest was his ownership of Television News, Inc., which he created to provide news stories that he believed were ignored or slanted by the major networks.

Both brothers contribute heavily to conservative foundations, organizations, and candidates. An indication of how widely their activities have been felt was the comment of the former Russian film director, Efraim Sevela, now a refugee. When asked to address the faculty and students at the University of Colorado, he agreed on condition that he be introduced to Joe Coors. Why Coors? "I have heard about him in the Soviet Union," Sevela replied. "All the Communists hate him. He must be an unusual man."

Because of the Coors brothers' political views, it's not surprising that many liberals have welcomed a campaign to boycott Coors. However, not only is there substantial evidence that many of the charges leveled at Coors have been enormously exaggerated, but, ironically, the company has in fact adopted policies that liberals would consider progressive and enlightened.

For example, Coors has been accused by boycotters of discriminating against women. In fact, there were almost no women production workers in the brewery before 1971, and by 1975 only 7 percent of the company's work force was female—not an unusual record in the heavily male-dominated brewery industry. In the past nine years, however, Coors has made dramatic changes. The percentage of women employees has tripled to 21 percent, with women well represented at all levels of the company.

In its most recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) statement, Coors could report that 10 percent of its officials and managers were women, compared to a national average of 7 percent. Some 26 percent of its technicians (mainly skilled laboratory workers) were women, compared to a 17 percent national average, and 13 percent of its laborers (mainly unskilled) were women, compared to a national average of 7 percent. It's little wonder that Gerry Bean, president of the Colorado Women's Political Caucus, has written, "It is my opinion that Coors is one of the more progressive employers in the state of Colorado."

It is also interesting that from 1976 to 1982, the Adolph Coors Foundation contributed over $420,000 to 31 different women's organizations, leading the executive director of Colorado Women in Business Enterprises to say, "Adolph Coors Company is one of the key supporters financially of women's programs in the Denver area."

Coors has also been charged with discrimination against gays primarily for two reasons. The first is that one time, the company contracted with a private polygraph company that asked employees such questions as "Are you a homosexual?" However, Joe Coors said that he did not know that this and other questions about employees' private lives were being asked, and they were swiftly eliminated from the polygraph questionnaire years ago.

The second reason is that the Coors Company Personnel Policy says that one of several grounds for discharge of employees is "conduct on company premises which violates the common decency or morality of the community." Union official James Silverthorn has contended that this policy "is aimed at gays."

Yet Coors was the first American brewer to prohibit in writing any discrimination because of sexual preference. The Advocate, a national gay newspaper, investigated the issue thoroughly in 1977. After interviews with Coors officials, gay employees, union leaders, and others, it concluded "not to recommend a continuation of the national boycott for the present." In the same article, the Advocate also chided the AFL-CIO for not having any record of support for gay rights.

Another charge against Coors has been racial and ethnic discrimination. Yet since the 1977 strike, according to Coors vice-president Gerry Kaveny, "We have improved 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 record bears this out. Coors's most recent EEOC tabulation reports that the percentage of minorities in the company's work force is 14 percent, compared to a metropolitan Denver average of 13.5 percent. For officials and managers, the top level, the figures are 6 percent, compared to a national average of 3 percent. For technicians, Coors's figures are 9 percent, compared to an 8 percent national average. And for craftsmen, Coors employs 13 percent minorities, compared to a metropolitan Denver average of 12 percent.

Coors has been criticized vehemently for its use of polygraph examinations in the selection of new employees. A report by California PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), a Nader-associated organization based at the University of California, charged that the practice "probes abusively into individuals' private lives," and it pointed out that the unreliability of polygraph results has been extensively documented.

But one wonders how sincere such criticism actually is. After all, about 20 percent of the companies on the Fortune 500 also make use of polygraph examinations, but the Coors boycott organizers seem curiously indifferent to this fact. David Sickler, director of the AFL-CIO's boycott campaign against the company, made some revealing comments in the following exchange with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes'.

Sickler: As long as Coors continues to use that lie-detector, we're convinced it has the potential of abuse, whether it's being abused or it's not being abused. The point is they still have the right to give the lie-detector test. They still impose it on people.

Wallace: So—so do all kinds of companies, and you're not boycotting them.

Sickler: No, we don't. And—and many of those companies have union contracts, Mike.

Wallace: That really is the nub of the issue. They got—

Sickler: That's right.

Wallace: They got rid of the union.

Sickler: That's right.

Indeed, polygraph use became an issue only after the strike. For many years, Local 366 in its collective bargaining agreement agreed to the use of the polygraph in resolving truth issues in arbitration cases and investigations of theft and sabotage.

It's difficult to get a clear measurement of the boycott's impact on Coors because of a marketing battle and shakeup that hit the American brewing industry during the 1970s. But it is quite clear that the entire state of Oregon, with potential sales of at least 80,000 barrels, has been denied Coors through the efforts of the AFL-CIO and Teamsters. The latest round in the battle for the state, waged in the legislature over S.B. 358, is a lesson in how supposedly responsible elected officials can be coerced or duped into complying with the wishes of organized labor.

Introduced in February, the bill had its first public hearing on March 2, 1983, before the Business and Consumer Affairs Committee. The sole witness offering testimony in favor of changing the pasteurization requirement was Richard Allen, a representative of Coors. Allen downplayed the fact that the legislation would affect mainly the Adolph Coors Company, choosing instead to discuss the bill strictly on its merits. His main point was that under the current law, no brewery could change its purification process and still sell beer in Oregon even though the change might prove to be less costly or improve quality.

Rising to present the case against S.B. 358 was Oregon AFL-CIO president Irvin Fletcher. His primary targets were the groups to which Coors had chosen to contribute funds. "Mr. Coors, the company, and the Adolph Coors Foundation are major contributors to ultraconservative groups, ranging from the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, which Mr. Coors brought into existence with a quarter-million-dollar grant from the company, to the John Birch Society, which Mr. Coors has personally contributed to for many years," charged Fletcher. "Their flagrant abuse of political power through massive campaign contributions has not only reached epidemic proportions, but has also had other unfortunate effects."

The "other unfortunate effects" refers to a purported 3,000-page outline prepared by the Heritage Foundation for President Reagan. According to Fletcher, the document proposed loyalty/security programs, congressional internal security hearings, domestic spying, and contained "a list of domestic security targets including clergymen, students, businessmen, entertainers, labor officials, journalists, and government workers." For extra drama, Fletcher looked around the room and said, "Under such a proposal, 90 percent of the people here today would probably be targets of the proposed domestic spying program."

In reality, the 3,000-page report of which Mr. Fletcher expressed such fear was published in January 1981 as a 1,093-page book entitled Mandate for Leadership: Policy Management in a Conservative Administration. The book, which has some 250 contributors and was a year in the making, deals with every department of the federal government and was described by United Press International as a "blueprint for grabbing the government by its frayed New Deal lapels and shaking out more than 48 years of liberal policies." Herb Berkowitz, Heritage Foundation vice-president, commented on Fletcher's allegations by saying, "While it contains one small section on domestic security [nine pages long], Mr. Fletcher's analysis of those recommendations is far from the mark—and his assertion that we provided President Reagan 'with a list of domestic security targets' is a complete fabrication."

State Sen. Mike Thorne, the sponsor of S.B. 358, had strong words for Fletcher when he had completed his testimony. "Do you feel that denying consumers in Oregon access to Coors beer is a legal means," he asked, "and do you support that means by using our statutes to do so?" Fletcher sidestepped the question by replying that there was plenty of beer in the state for Oregonians without the entry of Coors. Thorne next accused the union leader of "demeaning the credibility of the Oregon legislature" by attempting to pull it into some "longstanding bitter battle that's taken place outside the state between the Adolph Coors Company and organized labor."

On June 15, S.B. 358 was again brought up by the committee and, with only one negative vote, was sent to the floor with a "do pass" recommendation. In the days to follow, three of the state's major daily newspapers carried editorials in favor of the bill. The Portland Oregonian commented that "protectionism by pretext is bad public policy no matter what particular interest—or beer—is being served." The paper urged legislators to "deal with the substance, not the suds, of the issue, and remove the Coors prohibition." The Salem Statesman-Journal said, "The choice of drinking or not drinking Coors should rest with consumers, and they should not be denied a choice because of some phony, trumped-up excuse." And the Coos Bay World sarcastically observed, "To our knowledge, whether or not a firm has union representation is not used to prohibit—or encourage—the sale of any other products in this state."

Despite such support, however, on June 21 the Oregon Senate voted 20–8 to defeat S.B. 358. Floor debate was limited, with only three senators speaking on the issue. Senator Thorne defended the measure, saying that it was difficult for him "to use the integrity of our system to enforce a secondary boycott." Sen. Walt Brown raised a new argument, accusing Coors of using asbestos to filter their beer, and told fellow members, "If you want asbestos in your beer, vote yes on this bill."

While it is true that Coors did use asbestos at one time in its filtration process, the practice was stopped in January 1982. But even when asbestos was used, laboratory tests found that Coors beer contained fewer asbestos fibers than any other American beer, soft drink, or bottled water analyzed. A 1975 Brewer's Digest article reported that Coors contained approximately 198 asbestos fibers per liter; other American beers had between 635 and 1,145 fibers per liter; soft drinks were measured at 290 fibers per liter; and a 1980 test of Chicago drinking water showed 3,830 fibers per liter.

Sen. Margie Hendriksen rounded out the opposition by saying that passage of the bill would not aid economic development but would add to the state "a beer that's not wholesome." Hendriksen did not supply her definition of wholesome, but it's difficult to see why Coors shouldn't come under any conventional usage. In addition, it is one of very few beers in America free of preservatives and chemical additives.

Following S.B. 358's defeat, I wrote to each senator who had voted against the bill, asking for the reasons for the senator's opposition. Only three of the 20 replied, and the answers are quite revealing. Sen. Jack Ripper said that even though "denying private enterprise goes against the beliefs of most Oregonians," after seeing the overwhelming number of votes against the bill he decided to vote "no" to please his "many constituents who had written and phoned."

Sen. Fred Heard based his vote on three points. First, "Oregon does not allow any beer in the state…that has not been pasteurized." This is akin to saying, "I won't change the law, because it's the law." Second, the legislature "has outlawed certain employment and discrimination practices…that are still used by the Coors Company." And third, "in economic times such as these, we do not want to do anything which will have a bad economic effect on those businesses already located in our own state." This contention, however, had been demolished in the committee hearing by Sen. Eugene Timms, himself a beer distributor. Timms convincingly explained that because Anheuser-Busch controls close to 25 percent of the Oregon market, it would strengthen non-Anheuser-Busch distributors to have a product that could compete strongly with the leader.

Sen. Dell Isham speculated that the defeat of S.B. 358 "had to do with health considerations and interference by the legislature in the authority of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission." Isham was apparently ignorant of the opinion by the Court of Appeals that this was an action outside the authority of the OLCC and could be handled only by the legislature.

The actual reasons for the bill's defeat were summarized very well by Oregon political analyst Richard Bornemann, who said, "A 'No' vote allows a legislator to make a flashy show of support for organized labor without offending Oregon-based companies that are relied upon for PAC [political action committee] contributions during elections. For the pure politician, Coors offers an almost irresistible opportunity to be 'pro-labor' without appearing to be 'anti-business.'"

Another factor has to do with one of the very criticisms Irvin Fletcher had of Coors—massive campaign spending. According to reports filed with the Oregon secretary of state's office, the AFL-CIO bestowed a total of $101,325.11 on Oregon candidates and the state Democratic Party in 1982. Eight members of the Oregon Senate received AFL-CIO contributions totaling $8,100, and except for one who was in the hospital recuperating from a heart attack, all cast their votes against Coors.

Following the defeat of S.B. 358 Coors placed advertisements in several Oregon newspapers that said, "We lost. You lost." By being denied the choices of which beer they prefer to drink, the state's consumers, ultimately, were the losers. Ironically, the affair serves as powerful evidence of William and Joseph Coors's comments regarding the questionable role of labor unions in 1983. When union leadership is more concerned with indefinitely maintaining a campaign of revenge, supported by lies and misinformation, than with the welfare of the worker, perhaps one can better understand why the labor movement is on the wane.

Kelly Ross lives in Oregon. His previous contributions to REASON include "Vanishing Farmland " (March 1982) and "Losing Ground in Oregon " (April 1983).