AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland said yesterday that the labor federation has lifted a 10-year-old boycott of Coors beer, bringing an end to one of the most bitter labor-ownership disputes of recent years.
As part of an agreement between the AFL-CIO and Coors, the brewer said it would not interfere with union organizing efforts at its plants and would allow the use of union members in the construction of any future Coors facilities, including a possible new brewery in Elkton, Va.
Kirkland said Coors agreed to perform its construction work "under a union agreement or a union project agreement" covering a particular work site.
Kirkland said the union's campaign urging consumers to boycott Coors beer had a significant impact on the company, the fifth largest beer producer in the country, which is long known for its tough stance against unions. The boycott, which began when Coors broke a brewery workers strike in 1977, was "a resounding success," he said.
Coors' recent efforts to expand its distribution in the Northeast, where there is strong pro-union sentiment, was cited by many as a key reason for the agreement.
Earlier this year, Coors opened a packaging and distributing plant in Elkton, in the Shenandoah Valley. It also announced that it might expand that plant into a $350 million brewery to supply the East Coast with beer.
Currently, Coors' sole brewery is in Golden, Colo., producing 15.3 million barrels of beer annually.
"If they had any hopes in breaking into the Northeast market, they had to straighten up their act," said Robert Harbrant, president of the the AFL-CIO's Food and Allied Service Trades department.
John Meadows, a spokesman for Coors, said increasing sales in the Northeast was not the motivating factor in the settlement. However, he also said the brewer is launching a major sales drive in that region, its weakest market, and hoped that the agreement would improve sales.
Just five months ago, Coors entered the New York and New Jersey market. Coors advertising posters throughout New York City were defaced with "Boycott Coors" graffiti. Washington has been a particularly difficult market for Coors, Meadows said.
"We would like to do a lot better in Washington," the Coors spokesman said. "There are hotels there who won't even let us compete" because of the boycott.
The AFL-CIO targeted Coors in 1977 after the company broke a strike by Brewery Workers Local 366. Fifteen hundred union members walked out, and the company hired hundreds of replacements after revoking a longstanding "union shop" rule requiring union membership.
The four major points of the agreement reached yesterday ended the AFL-CIO boycott, reaffirmed the right of Coors workers to choose union representation, allowed future AFL-CIO union organizing at Coors breweries and permitted the use of union construction workers at any future Coors building sites.
"If Gorbachev and Reagan can talk, certainly the AFL-CIO and Coors can," Meadows said.
Meadows said the boycott "certainly did hurt. No one likes negatives. It required a certain amount of energy to counter."
Yesterday's agreement, according to Harbrant, contradicts assertions that there is no legitimate role for labor in American society.
"Certainly it's a development noteworthy in 1987, when labor is supposed to be dead," Harbrant said.
Within the next few days, union representatives will begin organizing efforts in the Colorado brewery, Kirkland said during a press conference held at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington.
At the Coors Elkton plant, in a largely conservative farming and factory town of 1,000, some believe union recruiters will encounter resistance.
Plant manager Norman Kuhl said none of his 270 employes belongs to a union now, and he did not anticipate any joining in the future. Virginia's right-to-work law forbids mandatory union membership.
But Bob Georgine, president of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades department, said, "There's plenty of union manpower down there. We won't have any problem at all."