LCBO workers hit the picket lines over job security

For the first time in history, employees of the LCBO are out on strike in protest of the Ontario government's decision to expand the sale of alcohol in convenience and grocery stores.

At the end of May, Premier Doug Ford announced that grocery stores who sell beer and wine will now be permitted to sell larger packages, as well as a larger selection including pre-mixed drinks - while also expanding the permissions to convenience stores.

The Premier said this expansion does not negate the need for stores like the LCBO and Beer Store.

"As of October 31s, every convenience, grocery and big box store in Ontario will be able to sell beer, cider, wine and ready to drink alcoholic beverages," Ford said in his May press conference.

"As we enter this new marketplace, The Beer Store and the LCBO will continue to play a big role."

Ford has said the driving factor behind the decision is convenience for Ontarians.

OPSEU/SEFPO, the union representing LCBO workers, say that they've made proposals to the government to open more stores and increase hours of operation in order to provide that convenience, but they've been largely ignored by the Ontario government.

They've accused Ford of being motivated by wanting to "make life better for his wealthy friends".

Cameron Pardy, OPSEU Local 497 LBED President, said the dispute with the government comes down simply to job security, with roughly 70% of the LCBO's 10,000 employee workforce being in precarious casual positions and unable to depend on work for long stretches at a time.

Pardy says while the Ford government has cited a public outcry for more convenience when it comes to alcohol sales, he's not sure how realistic it is.

"I do think that convenience is a valid point to get across, however, I don't think it's worth the sacrifice of our public service sector," Pardy said.

"We've had an outcry of support from the general public, so I'm not sure where all these people are crying out for convenience."

Pardy says working at the LCBO is one of the best jobs he's ever had, but employees need a sense of security that will only worsen if Ontario moves forward with privatization of alcohol sales.

He says Ontario's plan will, in the long run, be to the detriment of the people of Ontario.

"I believe that this is the start of sticking up to the people like the CEOs and the premiers that only want to support the very wealthy," Pardy said.

"There are some people that will prosper from this, only a few, while the rest of Ontario will suffer... I don't think that I've talked to one public member in the last three days that I've been out there that actually 100% supports this."

Laura Latimer, OPSEU Local 497 Treasurer, says while Ontario may want more convenience, she doesn't believe they want it to come at the expense of the $2.5 billion in profit at the LCBO that can be reinvested into provincial services.

She says if that's gone it will instead go into the pockets of wealthy box store operators, and come out of the pockets of people of Ontario.

"Where's that $2.5 billion going to come from?" Latimer said.

"They're [Ontario residents] going to pay more taxes... It's got to come from somewhere. It's a lot of money to make up."

On Friday, the LCBO released a statement saying they were disappointed that OPSEU employees decided to move forward with a strike.

"LCBO is disappointed that the leadership of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) has decided to initiate the first strike in our long history," the statement reads.

"We have engaged in collective bargaining with OPSEU in hopes of reaching a fair and equitable agreement that addresses their considerations while ensuring the long-term sustainability of our operations. Despite our best efforts, we have not yet been able to do so."

In their latest offer, the LCBO says 7% in wage increases over the next 3 years were offered, and 400 casual positions would be converted to full time while access to benefits for remaining casual employees would be improved.

These changes aren't enough for OPSEU, who are committed to getting the Ontario government to reverse its decision to make ready to drink beverages available in convenience and grocery stores.

Owen Fullerton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, YGK News