Liquor distributors hit the streets for a day

Impending privatization of alcohol distribution behind one-day walkout

Employees of the liquor distribution warehouse on Government Street walk a picket line Tuesday morning. Shown are Gavin Nye

Workers at Victoria’s liquor distribution centre drew attention to an otherwise unremarkable warehouse on Government Street Tuesday.

Picketing along Government Street, they wore signs reading BCGEU on strike.

The purpose of the one-day strike was in part to oppose the provincial government’s proposal to privatize distribution of alcohol.

While the 18 workers at the Victoria plant would be protected, the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union opposes the sale of this public asset.

Liquor distribution is a major source of revenue for the province, said Paul Finch, BCGEU vice-president. Additionally, he argued the cost of the service would rise if it were privatized.

The government’s request for proposals for a new service delivery model closed June 29. It aims to announce the winning proponent in March 2013.

“The purpose of the competitive RFP process is to seek a private-sector service provider that can operate a liquor distribution system that is more efficient than the current one,” reads a statement on the Liquor Distribution Branch website.

It continues, “Our expectation is that the cost of liquor distribution will be lower. British Columbians will pay about the same amount for liquor after liquor distribution is privatized, because the province will continue to control pricing.”

The strike, which took place in all three liquor distribution warehouses in B.C., was also held in response to contract negotiations, which have been ongoing for six months.

“We’re just looking for a fair deal,” Finch said.

The union does not support an offer by the government for raises of two per cent, and 1.5 per cent, respectively, over the next two years, he said. “We’ve seen our members’ wages deteriorate for three years due to (a wage freeze and) inflation.”

Asked whether it was dangerous to demand higher salaries at a time when the government is looking to privatize a public service, Finch said “absolutely not.”

“I think historically, the public in B.C. has supported the public-sector unions when we’ve asked for reasonable increases to keep up with inflation.”

Finance Minister Kevin Falcon responded to the union’s strike vote by suggesting the wage offer could be withdrawn. The government describes its current negotiating mandate as “co-operative gains,” where pay increases must be financed by cost reductions in work arrangement.

– with files from Tom Fletcher

rholmen@vicnews.com