Hundreds of labour activists and unionized workers took to the steps of the Saskatchewan Legislature on Thursday to protest the sudden announcement that the province is getting out of the retail liquor business.
The provincial government says the move is strictly business.
The decision was outlined in the provincial government's throne speech on Wednesday.
However, the province neglected to inform the Saskatchewan Government & General Employees Union (SGEU), the union representing workers at stores operated by the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority (SLGA), prior to the speech.
That meant many of the affected workers found out they would be without a job from social media, radio broadcasts or television news.
Bob Stadnichuk is one of the approximately 350 employees that the SGEU believes will be laid off. They include all of the front line staff at the 34 stores that will be closed, as well as employees at SLGA's warehouse and head office.
Stadnichuk, who also serves as the SGEU vice president for the retail regulatory sector, said the news was shocking.
"We were competitive, we were providing money to this province, so for them to come around and just literally hit us in the side of the head with this legislation, with this throne speech, was devastating for us," Stadnichuk told media.
"We don't really know how to react yet."
The protestors arrived at the legislature in seven chartered Regina Transit buses.
Many were in town for the Saskatchewan Federation of Labours convention in Regina.
Hundreds of people blew whistles and carried placards, signs and flags as they quickly filled the air with chants of "Scott Moe has got to go."
Organizers from the various unions and labour groups say the decision to abruptly close the provincial stories is a microcosm of the disrespect the province has for unionized and public sector workers.
In an interview on Thursday, Minister Responsible for SLGA Lori Carr said the decision was the result of a pattern in declining revenue from retail stores.
"As I looked at the data and I brought my recommendation forward, it was a business decision based on the facts that were in front of me," she said.
Carr said the drop in revenue comes from more Saskatchewan residents choosing to shop at private liquor stores.
She said that although the SLGA-operated stores are making a profit at the moment, the province decided to divest now before the ink turns red.
"It really isn't, you know, the core business of government," Carr said. "If we go into losses on liquor sales, that's going to take away from possibly building a new hospital or putting it into roads or capital expenditures and really the business that government should be doing."
Carr said the remaining stores will begin closing in 2023, with the province launching auctions for the liquor licences associated with each store in January.
The province will continue to operate as a liquor wholesaler.
Carr said some of those who lose their jobs when the SLGA-operated stores close will be able to find employment at the the private stores that are awarded those licences.
Stadnichuk said the loss of unionized, government jobs with benefits will be a tough pill to swallow. He said Carr's suggestion was a joke.
"They were jobs that actually you could raise a family on," he said.
"To suggest that we go to a minimum wage job — if that's even available, which is quite unlikely — then the dream is gone."
Carr said that some private operators offer comparable wages to what was offered by the SLGA, but declined to provide specifics when pressed by media on Thursday.
The minister was non-committal when asked whether the government could have done more to inform the affected employees, instead of letting them find out through the throne speech.
"Like I said that the decision was made to roll things out the way we did and we can't take that back at this point in time."