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LCBO workers have never gone on strike before. Here’s why that could change | CBC News



LCBO workers have never gone on strike before. Here’s why that could change | CBC News

If history is any indication, unionized LCBO workers will not walk off the job on July 5 when they are due to be in a legal strike position.

Ontario drinkers have seen this movie many times before: the union presents a strong strike vote in the opening scene, the drama mounts as bargaining goes down to the wire and ultimately there’s a happy ending, with a contract agreement and without a strike.  

But will there be a big plot twist in this summer’s version?

The Ford government’s plan to allow all grocery and convenience stores to sell beer, wine and ready-to-drink cocktails starting this summer looms large over the negotiations between the LCBO and the roughly 9,000 workers represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU). 

“Premier Ford is trying to sell us a bad deal, one that hands over more of the alcohol market to big grocers and convenience chains like Loblaws and Circle K,” said Colleen MacLeod, chair of OPSEU’S Liquor Board Employees Division, during a news conference this week. 

MacLeod says the union wants “strong” job-security provisions in the collective agreement. The union brings a hefty strike mandate to the table, with members voting 97 per cent in favour of job action if a deal isn’t reached by July 5

Colleen MacLeod, chair of OPSEU’S Liquor Board Employees Division, left, said LCBO workers are ready to strike on July 5 if no agreement is reached with employer. McLeod was joined by OPSEU president JP Hornick, right. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

“The strike vote got our employer’s attention and we’re hoping that they’ll actually bargain with us,” said MacLeod. “We’re hoping to get to a deal.” 

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

Union leadership has changed

A search through the news archives shows that 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. 

In fact, the LCBO has never had a strike in its history. Yet that’s no guarantee it won’t happen this time. 

The demographics of LCBO workers have shifted over the years, the union leadership has changed since the last collective agreement was reached in 2021 and the Ford government’s move to allow a big expansion of alcohol retail locations is raising fears among the workers that their jobs are at risk. 

To try to dissuade the LCBO from mass layoffs, a significant boost in severance pay is one of the union’s key negotiating goals, said Steven Tufts, an associate professor at York University who specializes in labour studies. 

Premier Doug Ford gestures toward wine bottles on shelves.
Premier Doug Ford’s government will allow all grocery and convenience stores to sell beer, wine and ready-to-drink cocktails starting this summer. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

“So if down the road LCBO decides to shutter some stores, it’s going to make it very expensive for them to do that,” Tufts said in an interview. 

Customer service representatives make up about 80 per cent of the LCBO’s unionized workforce, and the bulk of them are casual staff, paid on a lower wage scale than full-time permanent workers doing the same job. 

Some 5,700 of its 7,200 customer service representatives are classed as casual, according to LCBO figures. Those figures show the average hourly wage for a full-time customer service representative is $31.46 and the average casual is paid $22.59 per hour. 

“What’s really interesting about this round of negotiations is that [the union is] really focused on some of the non-monetary issues, specifically how to fight back against the casualization of work and the decentralization of retail,” said Tufts. 

He says another difference is the union leadership’s effort to get casual workers invested in the bargaining.    

“They had not only a very high strike mandate, but they had an incredibly high turnout [of 86 per cent] to the vote,” said Tufts.  

“That is an indication that there are some workers who may be ready to hit the picket lines this time, maybe a little bit different from previous rounds of bargaining.”  

Both sides insist a strike is in no way their preferred outcome. 

‘We do not want a strike’: LCBO

“We are not looking to have a strike for no reason,” said OPSEU president JP Hornick at the union’s news conference. “The ball is in [the LCBO’s] court right now to avoid strike action.” 

“We do not want a strike at the LCBO,” said a statement from the Crown corporation. “We continue to meet the union at the bargaining table this week and have dates set to continue negotiations in July.”  

The most recent LCBO collective agreement – a three-year deal that took effect in 2021 – was reached without a strike. Under the Ford government’s Bill 124 wage restraint legislation, annual pay increases in that contract were capped at one per cent. 

However, Ontario’s top court found Bill 124 unconstitutional, and the LCBO workers were awarded wage hikes that retroactively added 6.5 per cent to the pay grid over the three years. 

WATCH| Why Doug Ford’s booze sales plan could cost Ontario taxpayers far more than $225M:

Why Doug Ford’s booze sales plan could cost Ontario taxpayers far more than $225M

Premier Doug Ford’s push to allow convenience stores to sell beer and wine this year will cost Ontario taxpayers at least $225 million. The government is giving big breweries and supermarket chains discounts, rebates and payments that Industry sources say add up to hundreds of millions of dollars. CBC’s senior reporter Mike Crawley has the story.

Before 2005, LCBO workers were represented by the Ontario Liquor Boards Employees’ Union. Strikes were threatened in 1998, 2000 and 2002, during the tenure of then-premiers Mike Harris and Ernie Eves.

Yet deals were always reached without strikes, even when the PC government was deep in conflict with public sector unions and contemplated privatizing the LCBO. 

“The Mike Harris government, as ideological as it was, could never find a way of privatizing liquor distribution in a way that maintained tax revenue for the province,” said Tufts. 

The LCBO currently brings about $2.5 billion annually to provincial coffers. Its own projections, obtained by CBC News, suggest the Ford government’s retail reforms will see the province lose out on $100 to $150 million per year in revenue as grocery and convenience eat into the LCBO’s share of Ontario’s $11-billion retail alcohol market.

“We want a deal that sees the LCBO grow with Ontario, one that expands to meet demand and improve convenience,” said MacLeod. “This will mean that the revenues that pay for healthcare and education grow too.” 

The government is also paying the multinational brewers that own the Beer Store $225 million to allow convenience store sales to begin in September, 16 months earlier than scheduled. If the government had waited until January 2026 to implement the plan, it wouldn’t have had to pay the Beer Store anything.

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