Harvey Milk and the Coors Boycott
Find out how America's first gay elected official teamed up with the Teamsters in support of working people
June is Pride Month, a time when the LGBT community celebrates its community and remembers the struggle the community went through to gain equal rights. June was chosen because the modern Gay Rights movement often traces their catalyst back to the Stonewall Riots which happened 50 years ago on June 28, 1969.
Over the past 50 years, labor unions have often stood with their LGBT brothers, sisters, and non-binary members in fighting for equal rights in the workplace. Way back in the 1930’w the Marine Cooks and Stewards union not only elected their first openly gay Vice President, but they also won the first on the job protections for gay workers in the United States.
Perhaps most famous though is the partnership between the nation’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk and the Teamsters Union. In 1973, the Teamsters were building a campaign to boycott Coors Beer. Not only was the company anti-union, but they were also discriminating against people of color and the LGBT community. The company went so far as to use lie detectors on job applicants to determine if they were gay. According to the Harvey Milk Foundation, here is what happened next:
Allan Baird, former president of Teamsters Local 921 approached a well-known gay activist and candidate for county supervisor on Castro Street. His name was Harvey Milk.
"I know you're the spokesman for the gay community here and I can use your help'. The beer drivers' local was striking six major beer distributors who adamantly refused to sign the proposed union contract."
"So far (the Teamsters) had enlisted a group representing over 400 Arab grocers and the Federation of Chinese grocers who would boycott scab drivers. If the gay bars chipped in, they could win it.
"I'll do what I can," said Milk, pausing to add one condition. "You got to promise me one thing. You've got to bring gays into the Teamsters union. We buy a lot of the beer your union delivers. It's only fair we get some of the jobs"
The boycott worked. Gays provided the coup de grace shot to the already strained distributors. Five of the six beer firms signed. Only Coors refused to settle"
That partnership started a long alliance between the Teamsters, Milk and the Gay community. The union began hiring openly gay drivers in the days and months that followed. They also turned on their political machine to help elect Milk to the City's Board of Supervisors. Not only did their members knock on doors and make phone calls, but the union was able to help Milk gain the endorsement of the Firefighters union and even some conservative Building Trades Unions.
The Teamsters would also team up with the LGBT community in 1978 to defeat the so-called Briggs Amendment, which would have made firing gay teachers—and any public school employees who supported gay rights—mandatory. The Briggs Amendment was defeated by over 1 million votes and marked one of the first electoral victories for the LGBT community outside of a largely LGBT community.
Thanks to the activism of Milk and the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO in 1979 at their quadrennial convention unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the enactment of federal legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Unfortunately, unions and LGBT groups are still fighting to pass this legislation and in 28 states, a worker can still be fired for who they love or what gender they identify as.