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LCBO stores closed for two weeks as workers strike

Workers oppose Premier Doug Ford's sped-up plan to open up the alcohol market.
LCBO Flagship Store Toronto Queensway

Workers for Ontario's main liquor retailer, who say the government's plan to open up the alcohol market poses an existential threat to their jobs, are now on strike, with stores expected to stay closed for at least 14 days. 

Thousands of workers at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) went on strike Friday, July 5 in the first such labour disruption in the retailer's history, after months of contract negotiations between their union and management failed to result in a new deal.

Wages are not the issues, the union said, rather they take issue with Premier Doug Ford's sped-up plan to open up the alcohol market—in particular the increased access to ready-to-drink cocktails. 

After the midnight strike deadline, the Ontario Public Services Employee Union (OPSEU) shared a video of workers picketing outside an LCBO warehouse east of Toronto. 

"Welcome to Doug Ford's dry summer," read the video caption, posted to the union's social media page. 

OPSEU is fearful of job losses after Premier Doug Ford's government announced plans to allow convenience stores and all grocery stores to sell beer, wine and ready-to-drink cocktails. 

The first step is set to start in less than a month, when grocery stores that already sell beer and wine will be able to sell ready-to-drink cocktails. Convenience stores can start selling beer, wine, cider and ready-to-drink cocktails on Sept. 5. The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario said in June that it had issued nearly 1,900 licences to convenience stores just days after applications opened.

READ:  LCBO workers set date in early July for potential strike

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OPSEU officials said they believe Ford's fast-tracked plan to further privatize alcohol sales threatens the future of the LCBO, as well as the $2.5 billion dividend that goes to the province for services such as health care and education. 

"We'll be at the table if the government wants to actually address some of our core concerns about how to ensure that there is a future for the LCBO, that they can compete on a level playing field with these private interests," OPSEU president JP Hornick said in a Thursday evening press conference.

"We know that the LCBO can do it better, safer, and that we can keep the public money in the public coffers."

A previous alcohol sales expansion under the former Liberal government that put beer and wine in some grocery stores kept sales of spirits in the hands of the LCBO, and until recently Ford's plan to further expand access did not include spirits.

Hornick said the union is not opposing Ford fulfilling his 2018 election promise to put beer and wine in corner stores, but OPSEU wants to keep the ready-to-drink cocktails out of those locations.

"The ball is in Premier Ford's court around how he wants to approach this," Hornick said. "We believe that the employer is willing to actually negotiate. We believe there's a huge amount of shared interest here, but the premier is the sticking point."

Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy wrote in a statement that the government is "more committed than ever" to its plan. "We are particularly disappointed that OPSEU is opposed to giving people in Ontario the choice and convenience of buying readymade drinks, like coolers and seltzers, in grocery and convenience stores," he wrote.

OPSEU is also seeking wage increases and more full-time jobs, saying part-time roles now account for 70% of their workforce. 

The LCBO said its latest proposal responded to a number of the workers' demands but the union did not make a counter-offer. It said it was "disappointed" by the union's strike move, but remained hopeful a fair deal could be reached quickly. 

"We will be operating our business, but it is not business as usual," read an LCBO statement issued early Friday. 

LCBO's retail locations are closed for the next 14 days but online ordering will be available with free home delivery, though product limits apply. If the strike continues after 14 days, the LCBO plans to open 32 locations three days a week with limited hours.

The strike does not affect LCBO convenience outlets in smaller communities, and sales also continue at grocery stores, private winery, brewery and distillery outlets, as well as bars, restaurants and The Beer Store.

The LCBO's latest proposal, which it said was tabled Thursday afternoon, includes wage increases of 2.5% in the first two years of the deal and two per cent in the third year, as well as a special adjustment for certain warehouse positions.

The proposal would convert about 400 casual workers to permanent full time, improve access to benefits for casual part-timers, expand shift ranges for retail permanent full-timers, and improve severance provisions.

The Convenience Industry Council of Canada (CICC) in a statement sent to Convenience Store News Canada in response to the strike and the arguments made for it by OPSEU says that “the Ontario government's expansion of beverage alcohol sales has been widely supported by our businesses and customers, who welcome a convenient retail model in Ontario. Modernizing an outdated system and ending the monopoly on beverage alcohol sales is good for consumers, it's good for small businesses and it's good for the economy.”

The statement continues that the CICC finds it unfortunate that OPSEU’s leadership is afraid of competition and are fighting for a closed, restrictive market with fewer options for consumers. 

“Their claim that expanding the sale of beverage alcohol will somehow hurt jobs and reduce tax revenues defies logic and ignores the benefits that added convenience will provide to consumers. Economic research commissioned by the CICC, for Ontario’s convenience stores, shows that extending beverage alcohol sales to our retail channel will create jobs, spur investment and generate significant tax revenues.”

CICC goes on to state that by opening the beverage alcohol market in the province, some 7,900 new jobs in the province will be created, including approximately 3,700 new, full-time jobs in retail and distribution in addition to 3,400 part-time retail positions and 500—800 middle income jobs in positions related to alcoholic beverage production. In addition, the CICC says up to $212M in new annual tax revenues accrued to federal and provincial governments will result from the expansion, 68% of which will accrue to the province of Ontario.

“Convenience stores are highly responsible retailers, and our employees are specially trained to sell age-restricted products, including tobacco and lottery tickets. We have proven expertise in the sale of these types of products, and it will be no different with a new dedicated training program for the sale of beverage alcohol.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2024 with additional files from the Canadian Industry Council of Canada (CICC).

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