Coors Should Take Its Treaty With Union a Step Further


Perhaps labor’s 10-year boycott against the Adolph Coors Co. was called off prematurely last August, when the AFL-CIO signed a peace treaty with Coors that was seen as a major victory against one of the nation’s most virulently anti-union companies.

Coors recently maneuvered to frustrate efforts to unionize its brewery workers, even though the massive boycott forced the firm to promise that it would not wage an all-out campaign to keep itself non-union.

Despite the prospect of a union loss, the peace treaty still makes sense from labor’s point of view.


The company agreed to build a new brewery in Virginia under a union contract, and it dropped its furious anti-union drive. And, with some changes, the treaty could serve as a model for ending open warfare between labor and the majority of companies in this country that don’t want their workers unionized.

The highly publicized agreement with Coors last August was an indication that labor generally might be halting the decline it has suffered in recent years and even reversing the trend. It also showed the powerful impact of a well-run boycott.

But now some union leaders are questioning the value of the treaty. They say Coors is not keeping its part of the agreement because it is demanding that the company’s non-brewery employees be allowed to vote in a government-conducted election to decide if the Teamsters Union should represent the brewery workers.

If the company’s maneuver is supported by the National Labor Relations Board in hearings that start Wednesday in Denver, the chance of a Teamsters victory would be small because non-brewery workers aren’t considered strong union supporters.

On the other hand, if the agency approves the union request that only brewery workers vote, the union will have a good opportunity to win the election. Not only has the union received substantial backing from Coors’ brewery workers, it already represents brewery workers at almost every other brewery in the country.

A natural suspicion is that despite its peace treaty with the AFL-CIO, Coors is using the NLRB to keep the union out, just as any anti-union company might do. The company did not agree, under the treaty, to drop its demand that workers in its canning and glass operations be included in an election.


Regardless of the election outcome, though, solid gains were made in the agreement reached between AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Thomas Donahue and Coors that will help offset a possible union election loss.

Despite its insistence that non-brewery workers vote in the election, the company seems to be abiding by its promise not to use costly union-busting tactics to keep the union out, and in this era of union-busting, that is not an insignificant concession.

Charles McDonald, executive assistant to Donahue, explains it this way: “If we could have a standard of company conduct in all union elections that has been accepted by Coors, the entire labor movement would be far more successful than it is now.”

Under terms of the peace treaty, Coors is entitled to make plain its firm opposition to unionization of any part of the company, and it has done that repeatedly.

However, the company has refrained, so far at least, from the usual hardball tactics employed by anti-union firms. It has not even tried to take advantage of hitting the union with a barrage of propaganda tied to the government’s recent action (now stalled by the courts) to put the entire union under trusteeship on grounds that it is dominated by mobsters.

The argument that the boycott was ended prematurely is based on the assumption that a little more pressure exerted by continuing the massive boycott would have been enough to persuade the company to let only brewery workers vote.

That argument, however, isn’t persuasive. The normal drive for profits motivates Coors, as it does all firms. But ultraconservative ideology also plays a large part in the company’s thinking, and so its actions could not be predicted based on the potential cost of a longer boycott.

Coors had not only become a symbol of anti-unionism, it had also become a stronghold of right-wing political and social action. Most of the Coors family members have been in battles against women’s groups on the Equal Rights Amendment, against blacks on affirmative action issues, against gays on grounds of “immorality” and against unions on general principles.

To get a company like that to make peace with unions it hated and feared wasn’t too shabby an accomplishment.

And the firm also has made gestures of good will to minority groups because of the boycott, which was backed by organizations of minorities, women and gays.

Coors claims that it is not violating the terms of its peace treaty with the AFL-CIO by asking the NLRB to let 1,400 workers in Coors’ canning and glass operations vote along with 1,600 brewery workers. The company says all of those workers are now officially in company’s brewery division.

But Coors should now take another step to prove it acted in good faith when it negotiated the treaty that ended the long, costly and bitter boycott. It should agree to the Teamsters’ request that only brewery workers vote in the union representation election at the brewery.

At a minimum, if the NLRB’s Denver office rejects Coors’ demand, the company should stop the fight at that level and not launch a prolonged legal battle to get its way. That is the approach of a typical anti-union company, and Coors is no longer supposed to be typical of such firms.

Unless it makes that modest gesture, the unions would be justified in renewing a boycott that can only hurt a company now trying to sell its beer in all states, not just in the West.

Justice Appointees for Teamsters Bad Idea

The Justice Department’s attempt to get quick action on its request for court-appointed monitors to supervise the Teamsters Union has failed, and that failure may spell the end of that bad idea.

U.S. District Judge David Edelstein on Thursday turned down the government’s drastic proposal to immediately name monitors to check up on the union leadership and to later put the union under trusteeship.

The whole case has been delayed until Feb. 27, 1989--after a new President takes over.

If Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis is elected president, he undoubtedly will want to push actions against alleged mobsters in the union.

But, like many Democratic and Republican members of the Senate and House, Dukakis has already denounced the Justice Department’s idea of direct government intervention to help run the union as unworkable and inappropriate in a democracy.

Vice President George Bush has not said what he thinks of the plan, but he, too, may want it dropped if he is elected.

On Thursday, the judge decided to combine the request for the union monitors with a trial on the government’s racketeering suit to oust the 18 members of the Teamsters international executive board, which it alleges is dominated by mobsters.

The court already has ordered the union’s leaders to stay clear of underworld figures, but that is light-years away from the plan to put monitors into the union now and to name trustees who would replace the union’s leaders pending “free and fair elections.”

U.S. Atty. Rudolph W. Giuliani has suggested that after Dukakis, Bush and others learn how limited the trusteeship plan is, they may all accept it.

“Clean locals” would continue to operate as they do now, and the trustees would not be involved in either the union’s collective bargaining or political action, an aide to Giuliani explained.

But the trustees would have to decide, with court approval, which union locals are not tainted by mob ties. And, intended or not, the trustees would inevitably be involved in contract negotiations since most of the union’s major pacts are national. Also, political action is directed from the union’s headquarters in Washington.

More needs to be done to break the mob ties that several Teamsters leaders still have, including more vigorous enforcement of criminal laws.

And the death last week of Teamsters President Jackie Presser opens the way for some action by the union’s international executive board to set up an election process that will help members get rid of the mob influence.

The acting president, Weldon Mathis, almost surely will be named president by the board within 15 days. He would serve until the union’s next convention in 1991.

Perhaps a special election could be called soon that would be closely supervised by the Department of Labor. While such an election would be expensive for the union, it would give the members, not the executive board, the right to choose the person who will lead the giant union. The Justice Department itself is considering a plan to order a special election before taking the Teamsters’ executive board into court in February.

But in any case, if the next administration in Washington acts rationally, it will drop the idea of letting government appointees run the union.