4/27/08

Pro-union Denver Post campaigns against RTW

Molson Coors is walking a political tightrope with the right-to-work ballot initiative, a controversial measure driven, at least in part, by a fifth-generation member of the Coors family. Before the 2005 merger with Molson Inc., Golden-based Adolph Coors Co. was long associated with the family's strict conservative views.

But the company has declared that it is firmly against the effort to ban mandatory union membership in Colorado, even though Jonathan Coors, the 28-year-old nephew of Molson Coors vice chairman Pete Coors, is one of the leaders of the movement.

Some say Molson Coors' public stance is part of an effort to distance itself from the family's political agenda and avoid a potential backlash from blue-collar beer drinkers.

"I'm surprised they're not locking Jonathan in the trunk of a car and leaving him at long-term parking out at (Denver International Airport)," said Dan Baum, author of "Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty." "A guy named Coors going around promoting a right-to-work law is bad news for Coors."

A bitter labor battle and allegations of discrimination spurred a strike in 1977 and a years-long boycott of Coors beer among unions, minority groups and the gay and lesbian community, crippling the brand amid the growth of competitors like Budweiser.

Image hurt company

In the mid-1980s, Coors' perceived anti-union and anti-gay views led cities including Detroit and Boston to prohibit public officials from attending company-sponsored events.

Ill feelings toward the brand were revived in the early 1990s because of Coors family support of Amendment 2, which sought to repeal gay-rights laws in Colorado, and in 2004 when Pete Coors backed a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriages during his bid for a U.S. Senate seat.

"That the Coors Brewing Co. does not support right to work shows an enormous evolution of that corporation, and it's more evidence that the family and the family's ethics and politics no longer run the show," Baum said.

The shift to focus more on the bottom line and less on politics began in 1993 when Pete Coors hired Leo Kiely, a former Frito-Lay executive. Kiely succeeded Coors as chief executive of Adolph Coors Co. in 2000 and was named chief executive of Molson Coors when the companies merged. Coors Brewing is the U.S. subsidiary of the combined company.

Kiely wrote a newspaper editorial denouncing the right-to- work effort — even after Coors Brewing's position already had been reported.

Kiely also issued a statement in 2004 to say the company didn't share Pete Coors' views on the same-sex marriage amendment.

"They're more concerned about some of the financial measures, and I think Leo brought that sense of discipline to the company when he came in," said Eric Shepard, executive editor of Beer Marketer's Insight, a trade publication.

Shepard said Coors isn't more focused on blue-collar drinkers than other major domestic breweries, but the company's Banquet and Keystone Light brands are geared toward that demographic.

The right-to-work campaign submitted 133,000 signatures to the Colorado secretary of state's office this month, and if the required 76,000 are certified, the measure will be on November's ballot. It would ask voters to amend the Colorado Constitution to say that workers can't be mandated to join a union and pay dues or fees.

Jonathan Coors is expected to lead the outreach to voters.

CoorsTek, headed by Pete's brother, John, told The Post recently that it supports the campaign. A high-tech ceramics manufacturing spinoff of the beer company, CoorsTek is privately held by John Coors and other undisclosed members of the family. Jonathan, John's son, is CoorsTek's director of government relations.

Working as a consultant for the right-to-work campaign is Alan Philp, former executive director of the now-defunct Trailhead Group. Pete Coors co-founded and put $200,000 into Trailhead, which financed ads slamming Democrats, including Gov. Bill Ritter.

Despite the measure's ties to the Coors family, the brewing company's spokeswoman, Aimee Valdez, said Pete Coors signed off on a statement that says Coors Brewing and parent Molson Coors do "not support the right-to-work initiative."

"He's looked at that (statement) and said that's good to go," Valdez said.

She said Pete Coors, who also serves as executive chairman of Coors Brewing, isn't a financial backer of the initiative.

"I've spoken with Pete Coors. He has not provided any personal funding to the right-to-work initiative," she said.

Coors' stance on the issue, as described by Valdez, contradicts the position he held during his 2004 Senate run.

"Mr. Coors has pledged that if he is elected he will consistently vote for right to work," states an October 2004 newsletter from the National Right to Work Committee.

The committee describes Coors, who lost to Democrat Ken Salazar, as a "pro-right- to-work businessman."

Coors, through Valdez, declined requests to be interviewed for this story.

The right-to-work issue has divided the Colorado business community and spurred several possible competing measures from labor.

The Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry is the most prominent business group to support the right-to-work initiative. Jonathan Coors is a CACI board member.

"We agree with and support CACI's position on the right- to-work initiative and their statement that this effort will maintain a healthy business climate," CoorsTek spokesman Dane Bartlett said in a written statement.

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, usually aligned with CACI on business issues, hasn't thrown its weight behind the measure.

The South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce has voted not to support the initiative over concerns about the competing labor measures. Labor has threatened to push measures that would require employers to give workers annual cost-of-living increases and mandate health-insurance coverage for businesses with 20 or more employees, among others.

Ritter has urged both sides to back off.

Critics want action

Critics say if Molson Coors and Coors Brewing are truly against right to work, they should urge proponents — specifically Jonathan Coors — to drop the measure.

"Coors Brewing is trying to play political games with the voters of Colorado," said Jess Knox, leader of a group pushing union initiatives. "Here you have Pete Coors, who when he ran for the Senate pledged to support right to work, and you have a long history of the Coors family supporting very conservative efforts, including right to work."

Marketing experts say Coors Brewing is unlikely to be hurt by Jonathan Coors' public connection to the campaign.

"I don't think that the company itself is really impacted greatly by the opinions of the family members or people who are remotely attached to the company," said Bob Mazerov, a principal at Red Tree Results, an advertising and marketing firm in Denver. "It might be different if he were the president of Coors."

Stan Slater, a professor of marketing at Colorado State University, said the measure isn't being followed closely enough by beer drinkers to have an impact on Coors.

(denverpost.com)

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