LCBO employees will walk off job Friday, union says

'Ford's dry summer begins,' says chair of OPSEU's liquor board employees division bargaining team

A person walks past an LCBO in Ottawa, Thursday March 19, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Thousands of Ontario liquor store employees will walk off the job Friday after contract negotiations between the LCBO and its workers broke down, the workers' union says.

Representatives of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) blamed Premier Doug Ford's government for the breakdown at a news conference Thursday evening, just hours before the midnight strike deadline it set.

"Tonight, Ford's dry summer begins," said Colleen Macleod, chair of OPSEU's liquor board employees division bargaining team.

"More than 9,000 LCBO workers will be out on strike as of 12:01 a.m."

The workers are seeking wage increases and more full-time jobs, saying part-time roles have become 70 per cent of their workforce.

The union is also fearful of job losses after Premier Doug Ford's government announced plans to open up the alcohol market to allow convenience stores and all grocery stores to sell beer, wine and ready-to-drink cocktails.

"Doug Ford just wants to make life better for his wealthy friends. That's why he's wasting upwards of a billion dollars of Ontario's money to fast-track privatized alcohol sales and hand over more public revenues generated by the LCBO over to CEOs and big box grocery and convenience chains like Circle K and 7-11," Macleod said.

A provincial government source familiar with the negotiations said if no deal is reached, it's because the union has been "almost exclusively focused" on discussing the sale of ready-to-drink beverages and not other issues, including wages, benefits and job security.

"The government was elected twice on the commitment to expand the sale of alcoholic beverages to convenience and grocery stores, and the government is delivering on that promise," the source said.

If it proceeds, the strike would be the first in the provincial Crown corporation's history and would limit the availability of some types of alcohol, particularly wine and spirits.

The LCBO says all of its more than 680 locations will close for 14 days in the event of a strike.

If an agreement is reached within the 14-day closure period, it says it will "reopen stores and resume normal operations as soon as possible." If the strike continues, it will open 32 stores Friday through Sunday with limited hours.

The corporation says its website and app will continue to accept orders for free home delivery for the duration of a possible strike, but there would be "reasonable caps" on products both in store and online. Distribution to bars and restaurants would continue, and LCBO convenience outlets in smaller communities would remain open.

Sales would also continue at grocery stores, private wineries, breweries and distilleries, as well as bars, restaurants and The Beer Store.

LCBO stores expanded their hours in the past week, with all stores in the province opening early at 9:30 a.m. and many stores staying open until 10 p.m. The Crown corporation says it's focused on getting a deal that's fair to employees but also helps it "operate effectively and efficiently for Ontario in a new marketplace."

A spokesperson for Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy criticized the union and defended its decision to expand alcohol sales.

"It's disappointing that OPSEU could be heading towards an unnecessary strike that threatens people's ability to enjoy their summers," Bethlenfalvy's press secretary wrote in a statement.

"Ontario consumers need and deserve the same choice and convenience every other Canadian enjoys."

Premier Doug Ford announced plans to introduce sales of beer, wine and ready-made cocktails into corner stores and additional supermarkets in May. (Alex Lupul/CBC)
Premier Doug Ford announced plans to introduce sales of beer, wine and ready-made cocktails into corner stores and additional supermarkets in May. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

Restaurant industry groups are advising their members to sign up for the LCBO's new online platform so they can continue to order alcohol for delivery during a potential strike, and to stock up.

Rocco Mastrangelo Jr., owner of Cafe Diplomatico in Toronto's Little Italy, said the possible strike comes at a bad time, citing the ongoing Euro Cup and Copa America soccer tournaments.

"Little Italy is always looking forward to the summer season for patio season and we're very busy," he said in an interview on CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

"We've stocked up as much as possible. I have product even sitting at home because I don't have enough room in the restaurant to hold it."

Matt Woo, who works for a wine and spirit importer in Toronto, said he was buying alcohol for himself that isn't available at grocery stores ahead of the possible strike, including vintage wines and tequila.

"I'm an absolute snob when it comes to wines and, quite frankly, the selections you can find at your local grocery stores — I'll just drink water, thank you very much," Woo said in an interview outside a downtown Toronto LCBO.

Over the years, unionized LCBO workers have always been able to get a deal without walking off the job, even when they've voted strongly in favour of a strike.

LCBO workers voted to strike in 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2017, yet reached agreement on a contract without a strike in every one of those rounds of bargaining.

Despite that history of reaching deals, one expert says things could go differently this time.

Rod Phillips, a wine writer and professor at Carleton University who's studied the history of alcohol, said he thinks a deal might be difficult to reach due to the complexity of the union's demands, which go beyond wages, benefits and working conditions.

"Some of the things the union wants, like rolling back privatization, is something that the LCBO can't do," Phillips said. "These are government decisions."

Phillips said the Ford government has shown itself to be "very positive" about expanding alcohol availability across the province and is unlikely to roll that back.

A strike could backfire and damage the LCBO because of the availability of other options, Phillips said.

"One of the dangers is that if the strike goes on for very long, that people get used to going to other places, so that when the strike is over ... the business doesn't just flow back to the LCBO automatically," he said.