San Francisco gay activist Harvey Milk led local queer people to join a boycott of a union-breaking, racist and homophobic beer company, writes Hank Kennedy.
It seems the advertising and branding directed at LGBTQ consumers increases with each annual Pride Month. Banks, police, and defense contractors have all had floats or tables at Pride events I’ve attended. One unbelievable example that was shared by a comrade on Twitter last year is the “Coors Light Pride Parade” being held again this year in Denver, Colorado. To understand why this sponsorship is so strange it is necessary to look back at two pivotal moments in early gay rights activism.
In 1974 the San Francisco beer delivery drivers were on strike against six beer distributors. The former president of Teamsters 921, Allen Baird, approached Harvey Milk, the well-known local gay activist, and political candidate. Milk by this time had acquired the nickname “the Mayor of Castro Street” due to his fame and influence in the San Francisco gay community. Baird was looking for community allies in boycotting the beer companies that refused to sign a union contract, most prominently Coors.
The Teamsters had already gotten support from Black and Asian grocery stores and Baird was attempting to enlist the aid of the gay bars in San Francisco to join the boycott of scab beer. Coors at this time required employees to take a “lie detector” test and would fire employees if they answered incorrectly to the question “Are you a homosexual?”. Milk agreed with the caveat “You got to promise me one thing. You’ve got to bring gays into the Teamsters union. We buy a lot of the beer your union delivers. It’s only fair we get some of the jobs.”
Community boycotts of Coors were nothing new by the 1970s. Previously the company had been boycotted by the Black and Latino communities over its discriminatory treatment of the workforce. In 1970 the company was cited by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission for firing an employee due to his race. Additionally, Coors had been supporting scab grape growers who fought the boycott that was organized by the United Farm Workers in California. This was another motive for Chicano activists to organize a boycott of the beer. In 1977 another boycott of the company began.
Joseph Coors, patriarch of the Coors family and head of the company, was well known for his right-wing views and involvement in various conservative causes. His own brother described him as being “a little bit right of Attila the Hun.” Coors gave the Heritage Foundation $250,000 in seed money and he personally contributed $300,000 annually to the conservative think tank until his death in 2003. He was also a strong supporter of then California Governor Ronald Reagan and was later rewarded for his loyalty by being appointed to the Corporation of Public Broadcasting during the Reagan administration. During the Contra War in Nicaragua, he donated $65,000 to the U.S.-backed Contra terrorists to help overthrow the Nicaraguan government.
In 1977 Brewery Workers Local 336, which represented brewers at the Coors facility in Colorado voted to strike. Notably, the strike was not over workers’ pay. A striker commented “We are making a wage of $7.50 an hour [in 1977 dollars]. We weren’t that concerned about the money. The issue is dignity and human rights.” The company had requested the right to search employees, require drug tests, and mandate physicals at any time, essentially putting workers under a microscope. The company also demanded a non-union open shop, even though the workers had overwhelmingly voted to keep their union in December of the previous year. Unfortunately, despite support from the LGBTQ community and a national boycott endorsed by the AFL-CIO, Coors succeeded in breaking their brewers’ union and today the only unionized employees at the Colorado brewery are a few members of the Operating Engineers union. Since the boycott, Coors has attempted to reach out to the LGBTQ community despite the fact that the Coors family continues to financially support right-wing causes and run for office as conservative, anti-gay politicians.
While the ten-year boycott of Coors did not save Local 366, it did cement a political alliance that helped advance LGBTQ rights. In 1978, the Briggs Initiative, or Proposition 6, was put on the ballot in California. This initiative would have barred gays and lesbians from working in California public schools. The initiative came at a perilous time for queer rights in America, as in 1977-1978 laws protecting civil rights for LGBTQ people were defeated in Dade County, Florida, St. Paul, Minnesota, Wichita, Kansas, and Eugene, Oregon. The language used by supporters has been recycled by anti-gay activists in the decades since, citing LGBTQ teachers as a unique threat that children much be protected against. At the outset, polls showed the measure winning with 61 percent.
However, a vigorous counter-campaign was waged by the LGBTQ community, civil rights groups, and indeed, organized labor. The California gay community had already built a strong relationship with labor due to the Coor’s boycott as well as Harvey Milk’s reputation as being a labor-friendly legislator. The state’s two teacher’s unions, the California Education Association and the California Federation of Teachers, were early opponents of the Initiative given that they would be the most obviously affected. In an April 1978 editorial the San Francisco Teacher, the newspaper of the San Francisco Federation of Teachers, warned that the Briggs Initiative “threatens the job of any employee…who publicly or privately opposed discrimination against homosexuals.” The President of the California Federation of Labor was quoted in a 1978 San Francisco Examiner article as saying it would “cause a witch hunt and destroy the basic functions of our education system.” Other unions including the Teamsters, Steelworkers, Farmworkers, and Auto Workers came out against the initiative. Labor helped mobilize voters to defeat the Briggs Initiative in November, which lost in a landslide by 17 points.
The legacy of the Coors boycott and the alliance it built are important parts of LGBTQ and labor history that deserve to be celebrated, particularly every Pride Month. They should also be considered when looking at which corporations think they can earn goodwill (and Queer dollars) by posing as friends of the LGBTQ community. While Coors should obviously not be trusted, even “progressive” looking corporations like Starbucks, which pose as being friends of LGBTQ people, are not above threatening their trans workers’ health care when they attempt to unionize or fire LGBTQ union organizers. Whether it’s Coors or Starbucks, corporations are not our friends and corporate “support” for Pride will not lead to liberation. Solidarity will.
Originally published by Tempest.