Givin’ Up This Beer for Sweeter Wine

Brewery Workers on Strike, 1977–1978


The following is an excerpt from the fifth chapter of Brewing a Boycott, which details Coors brewery workers’ 21-month strike against the company that ultimately ended in defeat for the union. A key organizing strategy during this strike was the consumer boycott. Union organizers (with Brewery Workers Local 366) sent strikers across the American West to drum up support for the boycott. Locally, a boycott support coalition also put out the word to progressive activists across the country. This section describes boycotters’ successes in late 1977 and early 1978:

The coalition’s efforts to publicize the struggle, combined with the work of boycott organizers in the field, worked. Coors’s quarterly net income had reportedly declined by ten million dollars since the strike began, as gay men and lesbians, feminists, Chicanos, union members, and college students joined the struggle for human dignity. Official resolutions of solidarity reached the coalition from Catholic clergy in Los Angeles, Continental Airlines flight attendants, and brewery workers in Denmark, for example. Both Willie Nelson and Paul Newman, a longtime Coors drinker, publicly backed the boycott. More informally, passersby honked loudly at boycott signs outside of the National Western Stock Show in Denver, and Broncos fans, following their team to the Super Bowl, booed at the sight of Coors balloons.

Kind words of support and solidarity — and, importantly, money — also began to arrive in the Colorado coalition’s mailbox in late 1977 and into the spring of 1978. Many supporters had heard of the boycott at work, in activist or labor publications, or on the radio. Their letters highlight the expansive network of feminists, activists, union members, and college students coalescing around the anti-Coors struggle. Return addresses map support from Colorado, California, New York, Texas, Alaska, Oregon, Florida, Wisconsin, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and even Tokyo and London.

Some items arrived in the form of hastily scrawled notes attached to small donations or orders for the coalition’s record, T-shirts, bumper stickers, or comic book. One supporter from Charlottesville, Virginia, sent two dollars in support of the strike, noting that he had “read about the boycott in several places.” Another order for twenty copies of the comic book, from a supporter in Berkeley, observed that “it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Coors at any party — people may not understand all the issues but they sure aren’t drinking scab beer.”

Other messages went one step further, pledging to spread word of the boycott and build new coalitions. Edie Merzer, a young woman in New York City, wrote that she had convinced students at Queens College to support a ban on the sale of Coors beer. She also detailed meetings with local labor leaders and her own survey of groceries and delis on the Upper East Side, many of which sold Coors — albeit illegally. If necessary, she was ready to sell boycott T-shirts and bumper stickers. “Keep those spirits high,” Merzer wrote to strikers and the coalition. “You’ve got friends 15,000 miles [sic] away fighting for your rights!” Another letter arrived from Denise D., an employee at the Department of Social Services in San Francisco. She wrote that she began boycotting Coors after seeing posters on bulletin boards in her office. A “collective supporting radical unionism and self-determination for Alaska’s native people” also sent a note, requesting copies of the record and comic book. The letter’s authors pledged, in turn, to ship all of state’s supply of Coors back to Golden. And from Missouri, the Crystal Set Feminists wrote asking for a free copy of the record, pledging to play it often on their nonprofit radio station.

By April 1978, the first anniversary of the continuing strike, the boycott had gained national attention, expanding well beyond organizer Dave Sickler’s expectations. Noted one Denver-area paper, “Coors beer, already famous, has become notable throughout the West for its new fame — the strike. Beer drinkers from California to Iowa have thrown their support to either the union or the steadfast Coors.” Even Time ran a story on the “formidable, if somewhat incongruous alliance of activists” supporting the boycott. The Wall Street Journal, reporting on Coors’s plunging sales, also covered the boycott, describing it as one of the most effective of the decade “largely because those companies [Coors and J. P. Stevens] have become symbols of alleged corporate injustice.” Striker Ray Marcouillier enthused: “The word is out. People are beginning to take another look at what Coors represents and they don’t like what they see.” 

Previous articleYours for the Taking
Next articleThe hidden history of U.S.-Cuban relationship