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Quality-of-life issues at centre of LCBO labour dispute

Money isn’t on the bargaining table as employees at the LCBO, Ontario’s government-owned liquor stores, are prepared to go on strike in time for Canada Day in a bid to secure more job security and better shifts.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Money isn't on the bargaining table as employees at the LCBO, Ontario's government-owned liquor stores, are prepared to go on strike in time for Canada Day in a bid to secure more job security and better shifts.

The union representing nearly 8,000 LCBO workers says that as negotiations continue it is turning up the pressure on Premier Kathleen Wynne's government to sign a new collective agreement and fix what it says are significant quality-of-life issues facing employees at the Crown corporation before a June 26 strike deadline. Both sides in the dispute are warning Ontarians to stock up on liquor before the Canada Day long weekend.

"We're trying to bargain a contract and not a strike. The stuff that's on the table is all quality-of-life issues, it isn't about wages. It's all in the Premier's hands now," said Warren (Smokey) Thomas, the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees' Union.

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The union says it wants the LCBO to make it easier for part-time workers to secure full-time hours, while doing away with two-hour shifts where employees are called in to cover lunch breaks. In a new advertising campaign called LiquiLeaks, a play on the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, the union contends that some workers at the LCBO have been kept on part-time hours for decades, often in a precarious position with short shifts and variable hours.

While the LCBO would not comment on the union's campaign, citing the ongoing negotiations, in a written response the Crown corporation has said that it needs flexibility to assign workers as it confronts a more competitive retail environment in Ontario where an increasing number of private grocers have been granted licenses to sell beer, cider and wine.

Following changes brought about by Ms. Wynne's government last year, the LCBO's monopoly on alcohol sales has declined across Ontario and it now competes with 206 grocery stores that carry alcohol. Those stores should remain stocked during a strike, according to the LCBO.

While negotiations are continuing, Mr. Thomas says he hopes the ad campaign will "put a little heat" on the LCBO as the strike deadline looms. "The last three rounds of bargaining have all gone to the 11th hour; this isn't unusual, it isn't time to panic yet," he said.

George Soleas, the LCBO's president, said in a message posted online that the liquor chain's stores and wholesale network should be able to operate through a labour disruption.

"It is unfortunate that the union has chosen a timetable which raises the possibility of a potential labour disruption at one of our busiest times of the year. Our customers need to be able to plan ahead, particularly as we approach the Canada Day long weekend," Mr. Soleas said.

In late May, Ms. Wynne unveiled changes to the labour code that she said would create fairer workplaces. Along with a hike in the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2019, the changes are supposed to make jobs more consistent. Mr. Thomas said there was an element of hypocrisy in the government's aims for its proposed legislation and the way it treats employees at the LCBO.

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While many of the LCBO's practices could continue under the new workplace legislation, a proposed rule requiring employers to pay workers three hours of wages if they cancel a shift within 48 hours of its start could help union members, Mr. Thomas said.

Pay hasn't been an issue of contention in the negotiations. The LCBO and union agreed to move all employees to a single pay grid last month. Hourly wages now top out at $27.53 after working the equivalent of nine years of full-time work.

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