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A look back at the Coors boycott
Police pursue UFW marcher Ronald Sandoval for blowing a traffic whistle Aug 27, 1973. (Photo by Gratie Sandlin, courtesy of Denver Public Library)

By James Mejia

El Chicano Movimiento
Part IV of V

The American GI Forum was chartered by Congress in 1948 in response to the racial discrimination faced by Mexican-American veterans upon returning from World War II. First, focused on medical and burial services for Mexican-American veterans, the charge of the organization quickly spread to other discrimination faced by its members and their families including voting rights and access to quality education.

Returning Latino soldiers soon discovered that the promise of a country grateful for their service would ring hollow and that they would have to continue to fight for their own well-being. So, in 1969, when word got out that capable Latinos were being denied employment by a Colorado brewery, the state and national GI Forum braced for yet another battle. Skyline Chapter member, Paul Gonzales, spoke up at the state meeting about his willingness to lead the effort, was designated the leader, and the Coors boycott was born.

After hiring two lieutenants, Richard Lopez and Frank Hernandez, to help him organize the effort, Gonzales turned his attention to funding his mission. While other unions and organizations would eventually join the boycott, the first to answer the call for help was the Pipefitters Union – Local 208. Gonzales’ request for financial support struck a chord with Pipefitter President, Roy Nylander, who knew of Coors’ union busting tactics. The first marketing steps were boxes of ‘Chicanos Boycott Coors’ bumper stickers and boxes of matches to be distributed to GI Forum and Pipefitter members as well as at area bars. The Pipefitters financed Gonzales’ efforts, “We picketed bars throughout Colorado and traveled to southwestern U.S. conferences to inform Chicanos that we were not getting hired by Coors. The company refused to tell us how many Chicanos they had hired and refused to commit to improving their hiring policies.”

Still, the family-owned brewery dug in, vowing to continue their hiring practices and ending unionized labor at the company by the late 70’s. The Coors family also helped to fund and organize some of the most conservative political organizations in the country including the Heritage Foundation.

The boycott attracted national attention to Coors’ discriminatory hiring and the Coors family’s funding of right-wing organizations and the focus provided the impetus for others to organize against the brewery. Mistakenly credited for starting the Coors boycott, the AFL-CIO joined the effort in 1977, eight years after it began, and their push offered increased visibility for the issue. Some African Americans joined the boycott and a federal lawsuit against Coors in 1975. The lawsuit coordinated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was settled; though Coors did not admit to discrimination, they did agree to mitigate hiring practices toward African Americans, Latinos, and women.

It was amidst this difficult employment environment that John Ortiz got a job at Coors as a facilities manager in 1968. Constantly challenged by members of the Skyline Chapter of the GI Forum where he became a member, they nonetheless had to admit they were boycotting so people like John could be employed at Coors. Ortiz was also constantly challenged by the working environment at Coors, “In the early days it was Pancho do this, Pancho do that. Very few of us [Latinos] were hired. I owe a tremendous amount to the GI Forum for bringing to light the issues at Coors.”

It turns out that brand loyal Latinos drink a lot of beer but two items were absent from Chicano refrigerators in the 1970s and early 1980s – grapes because of the boycott by the United Farm Workers in California and Coors beer because of the boycott started by the GI Forum in Colorado. By the mid-80s, the country’s third largest brewery was brought to its knees. Coors admitted a sales decrease of 10 percent nationally causing more than a 5 percent decrease in manufacturing. In California, market share decreased from a high of 40 percent in 1977 to a low of 14 percent in 1984. [1] Combined with Anheuser Busch and Miller stepping in to sponsor events in the Latino community, Coors had to take notice. Production, profits, and public perception all suffered during the Coors boycott.

By 1984 the boycott officially ended with Coors signing agreements to fund non-profits benefitting communities of color and using black and Latino-owned media for marketing. In the African American community, the beneficiaries were Operation PUSH and the NAACP who would take $325 in Coors funding over 5 years. In the Latino community, the American GI Forum and National Council of La Raza received $300 million. In addition, employment of workers of color at Coors was to increase as would the number of Latino beer distributors. As would be expected of Coors, they not only refused to admit culpability but Coors Spokesman, Eric Wriggle, was quoted as saying, “This makes it clear we actually have been supporting efforts in the Hispanic community all along.” [2]

On August 19, 1987, the AFL-CIO took down the ‘Boycott Coors’ sign on top of their Denver headquarters and also settled with the brewery. Coors admitted that the boycott spreading to the East Coast limited their marketing ability. Coors agreed to stop impeding union organizing at the brewery. [3]

When asked about the boycott, the brewery’s communication department refers to a new ownership structure that has taken operation of the brewery out of the family’s hands and their 95 out of 100 score on the Hispanic Association of Corporate Responsibility’s 2014 Corporate Index Report, “MillerCoors has come a long way since the boycott. This progress has been driven by MillerCoors belief that a commitment to diversity and inclusion makes us a better company. By embracing the Hispanic community, employee diversity and a broad range of diverse suppliers, we are contributing to the economic development and success of the communities we serve.”

For many, however, the boycott has never died. In 2008, when Coors pledged $1 Million in cash and beer in support of the Democratic National Convention, organizers were between a political rock and a hard spot. Many old-time Democrats with long memories vowed to not drink the beer – even if it were free.

Paul Gonzales never felt satisfied with the boycott result, “Coors never opened their books to reveal their hiring process or hiring numbers. They never admitted they had ever done anything wrong. We were looking for a level playing field in employment but also being treated with dignity. I don’t think we ever got either.”

[1] “Management-Labor Relations at Coors,” The Theory and Practice of Corporate Communications, Alan T. Belasen

[2] “Coors Agrees to Use $300M to Aid Hispanic-Owned Concerns,” New York Times, October 29, 1984.

[3] “A.F.L.-C.I.O. Agrees to End Boycott of Coors.” New York Times, August 20, 1987.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5





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