The Coors of History

The target market that Coors Light is now trying to reach wasn't even born when light beer was invented in the late 1960s to the scorn and snickers of hard-core beer drinkers. And many 21- to 25-year-olds completely missed the controversies that swamped the brewer in the 1970s and early '80s.

Over the decades, Coors Brewing Company has dealt with a series of complaints from women, minorities, environmentalists, gays, lesbians and unions, knocking them down, one by one, like so many beer cans stacked in a pyramid.

But now one labor group is foaming over again.

Union workers at the Graphic Packaging Corporation plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan -- the largest folding-carton manufacturer in the United States, which happens to be owned and controlled by Coors family trusts -- have been locked out for six months following a heated contract dispute over work conditions. So earlier this month, the PACE International Union and the AFL-CIO, which combined account for more than 13 million members, called for a boycott of all products in GPC packaging -- a boycott that could affect manufacturers like General Mills, Quaker Products, Kraft Foods and Coors.

"This company has decided to engage in some pretty brutal employment practices, including requiring people to work sixteen-hour days and all holidays," says Bill Gibbons, PACE vice president. "Coors and GPC have essentially been starving out over 400 people, and it was completely unprovoked."

And PACE -- but not the AFL-CIO -- is now taking its protest to a higher level, calling for its 320,000 members to boycott all Coors beer products as well.

"We're surprised and disappointed that PACE is trying to involve us in a dispute that has nothing to do with Coors Brewing Company," says Aimee Valdez, group manager of corporate communications for the brewer. "Coors is a completely separate and independent company from GPC. As such, Coors legally can take no steps to intervene in the GPC dispute. In addition, Coors receives no product from the Kalamazoo GPC plant."

But connections between Coors and GPC flow freely. Gibbons points out that Coors family members are major stockholders in GPC, and Jeffrey Coors -- son of Joseph Coors Sr. -- is the company's chief executive officer. "We're not interested in harming the Coors family," Gibbons says. "We're interested in getting our people back to work."

The AFL-CIO actively campaigned against the company from 1977 to 1986. But since then, Coors and the unions have made peace. In the '70s and '80s, environmentalists accused the company of contaminating Colorado water. But those groups, too, have come to terms with Coors.

"They used to be a regular polluter of Clear Creek and one of the three worst polluters in Colorado in terms of toxic-release inventory," says Carmi McLean, Colorado director of Clean Water Action, a national environmental group. "But you've got to give them credit. For at least the past five years, they've been on a better path and have made marked improvements. I think that they realized that people in Colorado are pretty sensitive when it comes to protecting the environment. So it's a public-relations strategy for them as well."

Black and Hispanic groups have had their issues with the brewer, and Coors has worked hard to turn around its image in those communities.

By far the longest-running controversy, however, was between Coors and the gay community. Initially, the major complaints focused on claims by gay Coors employees that they'd been discriminated against for their sexual orientation. The Coors clan also supported a number of conservative causes, including anti-gay groups, through their Castle Rock Foundation, the Adolph Coors Foundation and the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, which was founded by Joseph Coors Sr. According to the Castle Rock Foundation's Web site, one of the organization's goals is "to uphold traditional Judeo-Christian values," and to that end, the nonprofit doled out almost $3.5 million to charities in 2001.

But today, Coors Brewing is considered Colorado's most gay-friendly major employer. In 1978, the company adopted a non-discrimination policy that included sexual orientation; in 1993, a gay-and-lesbian employee group was formed; in 1995, Coors began offering domestic-partner benefits. The company makes substantial donations to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and sponsors Denver's PrideFest, as well as other gay events across the country. Scott Coors, great-grandson of founder Adolph Coors (who founded the brewery in 1873), is openly gay and works for the company. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

"You have to make the distinction between the corporation and the family," says Michael Brewer, legal director for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Colorado. "The corporation has come a long way -- in fact, they were pioneers in offering same-sex domestic-partner benefits. They've put their money where their mouth is, both internally and externally, by sponsoring gay and lesbian events and groups across the country.

"The family and their foundations are a completely different story," he adds. "But as a community, we've all benefited from the new attitude that the corporation has adopted over the years."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Julie Dunn
Contact: Julie Dunn