The Solution to the Craft Beer Industry’s Sexism and Diversity ProblemsRoundup
tags: beer, brewing, labor history, boycotts, womens history, sexism, LGBTQ history, consumer activism, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Allyson P. Brantley is an assistant professor of history at the University of La Verne and the author of a forthcoming book on the history of the Coors boycott (available Spring 2021 from the University of North Carolina Press).
In mid-May, on the cusp of American Craft Beer Week, hundreds of women in the industry collectively shared experiences of sexism, assault, discrimination and toxicity on the job and at beer festivals. Spurred by Notch Brewing employee Brienne Allan’s Instagram post about her experiences with sexism, the revelations have roiled the craft beer world and led to resignations, apologies and sweeping calls for change.
This is not the first time the American brewing industry has faced a reckoning over equity and employment. Dating to the 19th century, beer work has been, as journalist Dave Infante writes, “white as hell by design.” (One could easily add “male” to that description.) During the 20th century, employees, activists and labor unions challenged these inequities. Using civil rights laws, collective bargaining and consumer activism, they pressed for — and sometimes won — meaningful changes. This history provides a blueprint for those seeking change in craft brewing today.
In the mid-20th century, with the memory of Prohibition fresh on their minds, American brewers worked hard to sell beer as modern, family-friendly and patriotic. New technology meant that it could be safely canned and enjoyed at home. Ads in the 1940s and 1950s insisted that “Beer Belongs” in American life and featured happy housewives delivering beer to contented husbands. These advertisements conveyed the gendered culture surrounding beer. Women could buy beer and bring it home, but there was no place for them in the industry. Many cities banned women from bartending, deeming the work unladylike. The business of booze was left to men.
The public’s embrace of packaged beer led to a mid-century beer boom. Breweries that had gotten their start in the late 19th century as small, family-run operations grew bigger and more factory-like. Yet their workforces (and labor unions) remained overwhelmingly White, with Black, Latino, Asian American and Native American employees making up a negligible proportion of the industry. For example, in 1962, Stroh Brewery in Detroit had only 15 Black employees, out of a workforce of 1,435. Coors Brewery reported similarly low numbers in 1967: Out of 1,895 employees, only 90 were non-White. Women, too, rarely worked on the brewery floor, another unladylike domain. The majority of the 56 female employees at Coors in 1967 (44 of whom were White), for example, worked in office and clerical positions.
Interventions from — and lawsuits by — civil rights organizations, the federal government and aggrieved potential employees forced breweries to diversify their workforces in the 1970s and 1980s. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, established by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, proved crucial in this regard.
For example, in 1969, EEOC commissioner Vicente T. Ximenes alleged that Coors was in violation of the Civil Rights Act, and individuals such as Black employee Booker T. Mays and Chicana Elizabeth Olivarez also used the EEOC to challenge discrimination at Coors. After eight years of legal proceedings, Coors finally committed to affirmative action, as well as targeted recruitment and training programs for women and minorities. EEOC cases against and settlements with Stroh and Anheuser-Busch in 1979 and 1983, respectively, also made similar headway.
Yet the hiring of women and people of color did not mean they were treated well. Instead, they experienced harassment, racism and sexism of varying degrees. Evelyn Desmarais, one of the first women to work in packaging at Coors, recalled an environment of consistent harassment. After she filed a complaint with her union, Brewery Workers Local 366, supervisors “gave me every rotten job they could in that brewery,” she recalled. In 1977, an anti-Coors comic book, drafted by union members and community activists, highlighted such experiences: “After they’re forced to hire us they make it clear they don’t want us here — they haven’t even put in women’s bathrooms in most departments and the supervisors have hassled some women so much that they’ve quit.”