Blueprint for a movement

In a new book, Boulder native Allyson Brantley explores how a decades-long boycott of Coors beer is a primer for intersectional consumer activism

GOLDEN, CO - August 3rd, 2016 - The entrance to the Coor's Brewery in Golden Colorado. Founded in 1873 by Adolph Coors and Jacob Schueler it is now the largest single brewery facility in the world.

Born and raised in Boulder, historian Allyson Brantley knows a thing or two about Coors Brewery. So a few years ago she was shocked to learn about decades of boycotts against the Golden-based brewery, starting in 1957 and stretching into the turn of the century. 

Brantley initially learned of the boycotts during the first year of her doctorate studies in U.S. history at Yale. 

“We were reading a classic Mexican and American history textbook and there’s a paragraph on the boycott at Coors and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m surprised that I never heard of this,’” Brantley says. 

She quickly began brewing up something of her own. 

“Originally I thought that I would just go home to Boulder for the summer and do some research to see if I could find enough to write a seminar paper,” she says. But her research lead her further than expected, resulting in her recently published book, Brewing a Boycott: How A Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism

The Coors family has been heavily involved in ultra-conservative politics for decades, and starting in the 1960s and ’70s, they weren’t afraid to mesh these beliefs with their business. Discriminatory hiring practices, donations to conservative politicians, and efforts to systematically weaken its workers union all kickstarted the boycott of Coors beer. (Coors brewery workers were unionized until 1978).

“Beer is a really good lens through which to study other elements in U.S. culture and history,” Brantley says. “For me, the interest isn’t necessarily in the beer, [but] it’s such a constant consumer product in the U.S. that it touches all sorts of conflicts and developments.” 

Her research started off in the CU Boulder archives, where she found a collection of records from the Brewery Workers Union that had been donated in the 1980s. But she also traveled the U.S. for the following five years collecting research, including newspaper clippings, oral interviews (conducted both by Brantley and by other historians over the years) and union records.

“For the most part, the archival collections from the boycott are really scattered across the country,” Brantley explains. Brewing a Boycott is the first book to gather and contextualize these historical records.  

Putting together the pieces of the research puzzle revealed how intertwined the boycott was with different advocacy groups. Union members, progressive students, Black and Chicano activists, Native Americans, feminists, and members of the LGBTQ+ community all rallied around a common foe: Coors Brewing Co.

Brantley considers this intersectionality to be one of the biggest successes of the movement. 

“The movement became symbolic for a lot of people, it created a lot of opportunities for multi-racial and cross-class collaboration,” she says. “It wasn’t always perfect, but it really created a foundation for future organizations.” 

Brantley uses the example of queer organizations coming together to work with labor organizations in the state of California to boycott the Colorado company, since at the time, the two groups hadn’t seen each other as allies. In a 2019 article for the California Labor Federation, Pride at Work cofounder Kelly Wohlforth claims that “to this day, you can’t find Coors in a gay bar in San Francisco.” 

The Coors boycott wasn’t just revolutionary on the intersectionality front; it also took a corporation’s political affiliations into consideration, creating a blueprint for future movements — even those today. 

“It became that any activist could both see their politics in the boycott and then use their politics in how they use their consumer dollars,” Brantley says. 

But Brantley says the boycotts of today differ from the way boycotting was used back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. With Coors, the boycott was exceptionally well organized: activists would get together and plan their course of action, clearly outlining the goals of the movement. 

“They had regular meetings deciding how they were going to get people to turn up to events, to convince them to join in the boycott, and figure out other ways to pressure the company,” Brantley explains. “They crafted a really clear narrative of why the company was something to boycott. It was really well organized, which allowed people to find something in it for them. Today, people who want to boycott sometimes skip that step of preparation. There’s a lot more work that goes into a boycott than we often think.” 

Roselight Photography Author Allyson P. Brantley. Credit: Molly Zimmerman

By the 1970s and ’80s, however, the power of labor was declining because of governmental and regulatory changes, plus the power of corporations was on the rise.

“It’s not that labor itself gave up or became weak,” Brantley says.  “In the boycott we can see activism, but what they are up against becomes harder and harder to fight.” 

In the last two years, Brantley says she’s witnessed more coalition-based labor activism, citing examples of workers at places like Amazon and Uber who have recently been advocating for unions. 

“Companies have become much better at combating boycotts,” she says. “It’s not simply that the tool itself has been weakened.”

The boycott was a success for Coors in many ways too, as the company became adept at handling the resistance, becoming a model for other companies facing the same types of pressure. 

While Brantley admits that Coors has become a much better employer over the years, she still tends to support smaller, local breweries, as corporations like Coors are monopolizing the brewing industry. In 2004, the Coors family merged the business with Molson, a Canadian-based company that’s considered the oldest brewing company in North America. While the company has distanced itself from the conservative politics of the founding family, prominent Coors family members still remain involved in conservative causes, drawing calls for boycotts more recently due to their political support of Donald Trump. 

To this day, the Coors brewery in Golden does not have a workers union.  

INFO: Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism, by Allyson P. Brantley. Available in local bookstores as well as online. 

Correction: A previous version misstated the boycott start year. It has also been update to reflect that Coors brewery workers were unionized until 1978. We apologize.

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