Ontario plan to expand alcohol sales is irreversible, Finance Minister says, as LCBO strike continues (2024)

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Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy says his government will not back down on its plan to expand the sale of alcohol into convenience stores, which the union representing workers at the provincially owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario has identified as a key issue in a strike that has shut down the Crown corporation’s retail stores.

The decision to expand alcohol sales – particularly ready-to-drink, spirit-based beverages such as coolers – is at the heart of the dispute between the government and the union representing 9,000 workers. No negotiations are planned to end a strike that began last Friday.

The LCBO said it plans to close stores for two weeks until July 19, with online ordering being offered and then 32 locations are to open with limited hours.

LCBO strike could herald long and nasty battle over who sells booze in Ontario

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union is urging the government to drop its plan to expand ready-to-drink beverages into the private market, saying the growing popularity of such drinks threatens their livelihood as a retail operation and puts $2.5-billion in revenue at risk. The government’s plan, announced in May, to speed up the sale of beer in corner stores by 16 months is expected to cost more than its announced $225-million price tag – but the final tally is yet unknown.

In an interview Monday, Mr. Bethlenfalvy called the decision to expand alcohol sale in the province “irreversible.”

“That’s what we ran on,” he said. “We’re going to get that done and execute on that.”

The Finance Minister said the LCBO needs to modernize and urged union members to return to the table to discuss issues such as job security, wages and severance. He said neither side has spoken since talks broke down last Thursday.

Mr. Bethlenfalvy said the plan to expand to convenience stores will benefit small businesses, with about 3,000 convenience stores having a licence to sell alcohol this fall. He added the LCBO as a retail operation is in a “very good position to compete.”

“They have the broadest product menu,” he said. “The LCBO will be very well-positioned to offer more choice and convenience for people who want to buy Ontario-made products.”

He dismissed the union’s concerns that the government is creeping toward total privatization as “nonsense” and said there is a place in the market for the LCBO as a publicly owned retailer.

He added that the Ontario government won’t be forcing employees back to work.

Premier Doug Ford released a video on Monday promoting a new online tool that allows users to find outlets that sell beer, wine and cider while the LCBO stores are closed, prompting criticism from the union and opposition politicians who said the government should be focused on priorities such as health care, not alcohol. The government says it is part of its long-time pledge to liberalize alcohol sales in the province and give consumers more choice.

Make this summer an Ontario-made summer!

Our new interactive map shows thousands of convenient options where you can still buy beer, wine, spirits and other drinks across the province. Check out a local brewery or winery for some fantastic Ontario-made products near you and… pic.twitter.com/baAutZWYst

— Doug Ford (@fordnation) July 8, 2024

The corporation had planned to open five locations for businesses to shop in-store on July 10, but changed course Monday after the union threatened to picket them; instead, the LCBO plans to offer online shopping for smaller wholesale orders.

Colleen MacLeod, chair of OPSEU’s Liquor Board Employees Division, said her union believe the government plans to turn the LCBO into a wholesaler. She said the government’s model isn’t to benefit small stores or breweries and distilleries, but will hand the market over to big-box grocers and chief executive officers.

“The intention here is to reduce the footprint of the retail aspect of the LCBO,” she said in an interview Monday. “It’s about moving the public revenue to private CEOs, big corporations, and having them do this work, where they hold the profits.”

Ms. MacLeod said the issue isn’t just about LCBO jobs, but: “What kind of Ontario do you want going forward?”

She said the government campaigned on beer, wine and cider in corner stores but not the ready-to-drink, spirit-based beverages, which she said will become more available to younger people.

“I don’t believe that Ontario is wanting this at any cost, and the cost being to devalue the asset that we all own,” she said.

Spirit-based, ready-to-drink beverages make up about 9 per cent of the LCBO sales. But it is one of the largest growing markets, Ms. MacLeod said, and the union fears losing such sales will lead to the loss of casual jobs. The union says casual positions make up about 70 per cent of the work force.

Ms. MacLeod said the government’s pledge to continue with the expansion plan is unhelpful to negotiations.

“It’s not helpful that the Ford government is digging in,” she said. “There should be discussions happening. It’s not helpful.”

Ontario plan to expand alcohol sales is irreversible, Finance Minister says, as LCBO strike continues (2024)
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