LCBO stores closed for 2 weeks as workers strike, oppose plan to open up booze market

By The Canadian Press

TORONTO — 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 went on strike Friday morning 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 issue, the union said, rather they take umbrage 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 Service Employees Union 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 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 Friday it has already issued 2,813 convenience store licences.

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.

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.

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.

The premier’s office said the government is not considering back-to-work legislation.

OPSEU is also seeking wage increases and more full-time jobs, saying part-time roles now account for 70 per cent 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.

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 two weeks, 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 will 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 per cent 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.

A prolonged strike could be disastrous for the province’s bars and restaurants, an industry official said.

There are about 14,000 restaurants and bars in the province that depend on the LCBO and about half of them were struggling to break even before the strike, said Kris Barnier, a vice-president of Restaurants Canada.

Alcohol sales are about 30 per cent of its members’ revenue on average, Barnier said. But that proportion is much higher for nightclubs and pubs where upwards of 60 per cent of revenue comes from alcohol sales.

“The longer a strike goes, the more risk there will be,” Barnier said. “It is scary times for our industry.”

While online ordering remains available, the problem is those orders must be done by the case, and not individual bottles, he said.

“A lot of those restaurants that are really just kind of hanging on by a thread, they just don’t have the cash flow to buy large quantities of alcohol,” he said.

He said the LCBO has agreed to open five locations — one each in Toronto, Ottawa, Mississauga, London and Vaughan, Ont., for licensed bars and restaurants to purchase alcohol.

“This could be potentially life or death for a lot of businesses,” Barnier said.

There are health concerns, too.

Reduced accessibility to alcohol can be dangerous to the health of those with a dependence, said Dr. Leslie Buckley, chief of the addictions division at the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health in Toronto.

“I am concerned this could leave people in dangerous situations that could quickly become a health emergency,” Buckley said.

“I would encourage people who may be in this category of heavy drinking daily for a number of years to consider seeking help.”

Chris Jacks, president of Craft Spirits Ontario and owner of Nickel 9 Distillery in Toronto, said he is concerned that an LCBO closure will hurt sales of spirits, since the Crown corporation is the only retail option at the moment.

However, he said he hopes the closure will also prompt consumers to look more to local distilleries.

“There are a lot of great producers in Ontario that don’t seem to be able to navigate the retail chains here and get their products on the LCBO shelves,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2024.

The Canadian Press

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