British Columbia

Workers at 3 private liquor stores in B.C. unionize, file complaint against employer over pay raise

Workers at three private liquor stores in British Columbia have won their bid to unionize and say they now hope to negotiate with their employer for higher wages and safer work environments.

Berezan gave 10% wage increase to staff at non-unionized stores after employees at 3 outlets joined union

Cody Dilullo is an employee at the Berezan liquor store in Kelowna, B.C., and one of the leaders in the store's union drive. (Submitted by Cody Dilullo)

Workers at three private liquor stores in British Columbia have won their bid to unionize and say they now hope to negotiate with their employer for higher wages and safer work environments.

The employees at Berezan Hospitality Group liquor stores in Kelowna and Port Moody applied for certification at the Labour Relations Board (LRB) in late August. Less than a week later, workers at a Surrey location unionized with 100 per cent support from employees.

The workers signed union cards with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2, which has already filed a complaint on their behalf after Berezan excluded them from a 10 per cent wage increase. 

"Everyone's been really supportive and we got this certification by the book and I'm really confident in all of the organizers and union reps [...] to help us go through with bargaining," said Cody Dilullo, who has worked at the Kelowna store since February.

The Berezan liquor store in Kelowna is one of the company's largest. (Cody Dilullo)

All three stores were automatically certified by the LRB after more than 55 per cent of workers signed and submitted union cards — the threshold for a union to be certified without needing a representation vote.

Dilullo, 28, feels his $16.60 an hour salary doesn't account for the responsibilities he holds as a keyholder for the store, and says his pay wasn't increased to reflect that increased responsibility when he was promoted.

He says he was inspired to unionize after learning colleagues shared his concerns and after reading a CBC news story about employees at a private liquor store in Maple Ridge who unionized in August 2020.

The minimum wage in B.C. is currently $15.65 per hour. In Kelowna, the living wage — defined as the amount a family needs to cover basic expenses — was $18.49 in 2021, according to a report by Living Wage for Families B.C.

At the Berezan location in Port Moody, cashier Marissa Iacobucci says she is often the only employee working until the store closes on Friday and Saturday evenings.

"Liquor stores always come with increased risks of theft and violence," said Iacobucci, 21, who makes $16.40 an hour. "I'm a young woman ... so it simply isn't safe for me to work alone on a busy night like that."

Owner voices concern over complaints

In addition to the private liquor stores, Berezan Hospitality Group operates two gaming centres, a hostel and the Sasquatch Mountain Resort.

Owner Ralph Berezan says he is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the company's holdings. When asked about the employees who participated in the union drive, Berezan said "a lot of them didn't realize what they were signing." 

However, he told CBC News that he is concerned by the employees' complaints.

Berezan said his company has tried to be proactive by issuing a six per cent raise in January of this year.

He says the company also hired a human resources firm earlier this year to conduct surveys among employees and that the results were given to management only two weeks ago.

The complaint over lack of fair wages was chief among those results. Berezan says that prompted the company to give a 10 per cent wage increase to its liquor store employees — except to those at the Kelowna and Port Moody locations, who had already unionized by then.

Dilullo and Iacobucci say their stores were excluded from the raise as punishment for unionizing. 

But Berezan says he was advised that the unionized stores could not receive a wage increase without approval from the union.

In response, SEIU Local 2 filed an unfair labour practice complaint with the LRB, arguing that the timing of the wage increases is "discriminatory and meant to be an inducement for the non-union stores to not join the union and for the current unionized members to leave the union."

When asked if he would grant the unionized employees a 10 per cent raise once bargaining begins, Berezan told CBC News that he would be consulting with an attorney before making any decisions.

The union and the employer are scheduled to attend a settlement hearing this Thursday to attempt to come to a mediated resolution over wages.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eva Uguen-Csenge is a multimedia reporter for CBC News in Vancouver with an interest in investigative and data-driven stories. Get in touch with her at eva.uguen-csenge@cbc.ca or on Twitter @evacsenge for story tips.

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