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HARRY BERNSTEIN / Labor

Win Over Coors Signals Turn in Fortune

August 25, 1987|HARRY BERNSTEIN

The AFL-CIO won a major but not total victory last week in its 10-year war with the Adolph Coors Co.

A final victory is almost sure to come soon, when Coors workers vote on union representation. Even so, what already has occurred is a stunning success for the nationwide Coors boycott that was staged by labor.

And that success is the latest in a small but significant number of achievements on economic, political and legislative battlegrounds where, until recently, unions had been beaten consistently for several years.

The winning boycott against Coors was not just another fight against a company with the all-too-common management preference for operating without unions.

Coors did battle unionization because it wanted to operate in a "union-free environment." But that fight took on added importance because it was spurred on by the ultraconservative ideology of most of the Coors family.

The Coors family has made substantial contributions to such right-wing organizations as the John Birch Society, the Committee for a Union-Free Environment, the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, the Heritage Foundation and groups opposing the equal rights amendment.

The company's fight against the ERA and allegations of discriminatory hiring practices prompted women's groups, liberals, minority organizations and others to support labor's boycott.

Coors had claimed that the boycott was a failure. But a sign that the company was hurting came when it began signing peace treaties with some critics.

The earliest of those agreements came in 1984, seven years after the boycott began, when the company tried to appease Latino advocacy groups that charged Coors with discrimination.

The company agreed to pay large sums of money to the organizations if they would endorse Coors as the "Official Hispanic Beer."

The more Coors beer sold in Latino neighborhoods, the more money the organizations would get. Similar deals were made with civil rights groups in black communities.

But the most dramatic concessions by Coors came last week in its agreement with the AFL-CIO, the company's most relentless opponent and the major force behind the boycott.

The seeds were sown for the company's capitulation soon after 1,500 members of Brewery Workers Local 366 in Golden, Colo., struck over a contract dispute in 1977. The union was seeking to improve wages and benefits and to stop the company from using lie detectors and searching workers' lockers.

At first, the strike was mostly a nuisance to Coors. Management seemed pleased to get rid of its unionized workers. In less than a year, a few strikers crossed the picket lines and the company had no trouble hiring strikebreakers to replace workers who refused to desert their union.

But suddenly Coors found it was fighting on two fronts. First, there was the increasingly effective boycott, which was directed by David Sickler, the AFL-CIO western region director based in Los Angeles. Perhaps even more dangerous, though, was the intensified competition from the Anheuser-Busch and Miller breweries. They had launched costly advertising campaigns, cutting deeply into Coors' sales, which already were hurt by the boycott.

The combination was devastating. Before the boycott, Coors had 41% of all beer sales in California, its biggest market. Today, it has less than 14%.

Coors is limited in what it can do about its competition. But the company now has acted to end the boycott.

In late 1985, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Thomas Donahue received what he calls "some feelers" from Coors. Out of those came a sporadic series of secret meetings in Chicago, Washington and other cities.

Real progress toward an agreement was made with the company under the direction of Peter Coors, who took over responsibility for company operations from his father, Joseph Coors, in 1985.

Donahue soon won agreement for quick union-representation elections. The company said it will not stage an anti-union campaign, and it will stress that the workers have the right to elect union representatives. Coors will only tell workers that management believes they do not need a union.

The AFL-CIO expects a victory because of both the company's non-combative position and a preliminary survey that showed it has strong support among Coors workers. Moreover, just one year after the strike began, a third of the strikebreakers voted to keep the union. And many of the strikers have since returned to work.

The new agreement for the election among workers in Coors plants was reached in February.

But Donahue kept pressing and finally got Coors to approve another union proposal for union workers to construct Coors' $70-million brewery, packaging and distribution facility in Virginia.

Donahue says the Coors agreement is another indication that America's hard-pressed labor unions "just might be on a roll because of the significant successes we've had in recent months."

Unions' other impressive victories include:

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