Guest post by Allyson P. Brantley, author of Justice, Power and Politics series book Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism
Boycotts seem to be everywhere these days. Most recently, the April 2021 passage of Georgia’s new, restrictive voting law sparked significant backlash and boycotts – ranging from Major League Baseball’s decision to move the All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver to activists’ calls to boycott Georgia-based companies. In recent years, consumers have also used the boycott to oppose the policies and politics of corporations such as Amazon, Chick-fil-A, SoulCycle, and Goya, to name a few.
Politically and emotionally charged, these boycott campaigns often burst into view and fade just as quickly. As such, some have dismissed boycotts as insignificant, vengeful, or little more than performative activism. Many thus ask: are boycotts worth it? Can they work?
One example from the late 20th century – the Coors beer boycott – offers an affirmative, instructive answer. In the 1950s and 1960s, labor, Chicano, and progressive activists launched a series of boycotts against the Colorado-based Coors Brewing Company, motivated in part by allegations of anti-unionism and discrimination at the brewery. These efforts continued into the 1970s and 1980s, gaining supporters and momentum as Coors family members emerged as prominent leaders in the conservative movement. By the late 1980s, women and men on the American left could – and did – boycott Coors for many different reasons, ranging from union-busting to the family’s links to Reagan and the anti-gay Moral Majority. Noted one boycott organizer, Al Gauna, in November 1977, people were “actually anxious to boycott Coors because of [the family’s] politics.”
This boycott owed much of its longevity to persistent, creative organizers who forged wide, multiracial coalitions in support of the anti-Coors campaign. During a period of intense boycott activity in the mid-1980s, the coalition organized over one hundred marches, rallies, and letter-writing events, bringing together Chicano, queer, Black, labor, feminist, student, and Central American solidarity activists at events from San Francisco to Boston. These activists understood their struggles against Coors – though perhaps rooted in different personal reasons – as intertwined. “The boycott,” argued the Marxist-Leninist Workers’ World publication, “is a genuinely grassroots movement and it shows vividly that the people of this country do not support ultra-right-wing policies like those Coors wants.”
Their efforts produced successes as well as setbacks. Between 1984 and 1987, in response to boycott pressures, the company pledged over $650 million in scholarships and financial support to Latino and Black communities and signed a high-profile settlement with the leading labor organization in the country, the AFL-CIO. Into the 1990s, Coors generously supported AIDS research, as well as LGBT Pride events, gay softball leagues, and other minority-led organizations.
All this said, the most outspoken of boycotters rejected the company’s overtures, which they saw as “crude bribes,” and kept boycotting the beer. Yet while these corporate buyouts were disappointing to activists, they nevertheless viewed (and still view) the boycott as a success – for its persistence, vitality, and potential to build what they often called ‘unlikely’ alliances.
While not an all-or-nothing success, the campaign against Coors beer highlights the potential of the consumer boycott: it can wear down and change corporations and, perhaps more important for activists themselves, build far-reaching solidarity. Long-haul Coors boycotters would insist that their effort was well worth it.
Moreover, the boycott itself – as a tool of social movements – is remarkably adaptable and accessible. Through social media, a boycott call today can reach far more potential supporters and allies than the local marches and chain letters of the 1980s. With perseverance, creativity, and an openness to coalition building, twenty-first century boycotts can potentially do more than Coors boycotters could have even imagined.
Allyson P. Brantley is assistant professor of history and Director of Honors & Interdisciplinary Initiatives at the University of La Verne.