Socialist Worker

How a battle for union rights at Coors pushed back homophobia

Josh Hollands looks back on a US strike that brought trade unionists and LGBT activists together—and strengthened both

Issue No. 2389

Teamster union organiser Allan Baird was sceptical when he approached Harvey Milk to support a strike at Coors Brewing Company in California in 1973.

Milk was the first openly gay elected politician in San Francisco—and the Teamsters had a reputation as some of the most conservative workers around.

“The other guys at the Teamsters hall might think I’m crazy,” Baird thought.

Unions called for a boycott of beer distributors as a tactic to force them to recognise collective bargaining. Coors held out against it after other companies signed an agreement.

The Coors family was notoriously right wing. 

Latino and black groups who opposed racism at Coors, had backed the boycott for some months before LGBT people got involved.

Activists were infuriated when they learnt that Coors’ male employees were forced to take lie detector tests asking whether they were homosexual.

Lesbian and gay groups joined union activists and others to support the strike.They went from bar to bar pinning badges on drinkers and bartenders.

Delegations of LGBT boycotters flew to Colorado to speak at benefit events. 

Some workers held homophobic ideas—but as the boycott continued the solidarity started to change this.

Howard Wallace, a gay trade unionist, received a letter from the striking workers supporting LGBT people. 

One journalist reported back from a visit that, “the Coors strikers and the brewery union officials are well aware of the boycott of Coors beer in the Bay Area by most gay bars. They are most appreciative.”

Closeted

Howard Wallace was central to the boycott. He had worked as a Teamster but was forced to remain closeted about his sexuality.

Milk and Wallace saw an opportunity to overturn discrimination within the Teamsters’ union. 

So they had pushed for one condition—if LGBT people were to support the boycott, the Teamsters would have to allow openly gay people in.

To test this Wallace went down to the Teamster Hall, announced he was gay and said he wanted to drive. 

Just a few years earlier this would have been unimaginable. But now the union upheld its promise and gay men began driving for numerous beer companies.

Coors’ profits were hit hard by the boycott, falling 31.7 percent in one year.

This first wave of boycotts led to Coors signing a new contract with the local Teamsters. 

The strike ended in mid 1975. But it was resurrected on a national scale just two years later when Coors effectively locked workers out and hired scabs.

This was a further attempt to derecognise the union.That boycott lasted another decade.

Coors spent millions trying to save its image among LGBT people but it didn’t get very far.

The success of the boycott led to the rise of the Bay Area Gay Liberation (BAGL) group.

This proved critical to stopping the Briggs Initiative, an attempt to ban gay teachers and their allies from working as teachers, a few years later.

LGBT people had begun to find a place in the organised labour movement. 

In doing so they proved that solidarity is not only possible but necessary.


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