British Columbia

Picket lines go up at B.C. liquor distribution centres as BCGEU strike notice expires

The British Columbia General Employees' Union (BCGEU) picketed four B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch wholesale and distribution centres Monday as it begins targeted job action.

BCGEU picket lines begin outside centres in Delta, Richmond, Kamloops, Victoria

Monday saw the start of job action by some BCGEU members as they seek a new collective agreement. (CBC)

The B.C. General Employees' Union (BCGEU) began targeted job action Monday at four B.C. liquor distribution centres across the province.

The union, which represents about 33,000 public service workers across B.C., issued strike notice Friday.

Picket lines went up outside B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch centres in Delta, Richmond and Kamloops, as well as the wholesale customer centre in Victoria.

"This is a revenue-generating business for government," said union president Stephanie Smith, speaking to the decision to target liquor distribution centres.

"One of the other things, of course, that needs to be taken into consideration is that there are some positions within the public service that are very highly essential and we have to be very thoughtful about what job action we can take and its impact."

BCGEU members set up picket lines outside a B.C. liquor distribution facility in Delta. (CBC)

The contract between the BCGEU and the Public Service Agency expired April 1.

There have been sporadic talks since April 6, but the union rejected an invitation from the agency for another meeting last week, saying it would "not be fruitful."

Wage protection top concern

The union is the province's largest public sector union representing employees in B.C. liquor and cannabis stores and warehouses, wildfire fighters, social workers, sheriffs and correctional officers.

Smith has said wage protection is the top concern of her members as inflation climbs dramatically. She said the union wanted to avoid a strike, but had no choice after the last seven months of bargaining ended without a deal.

"We're hopeful that this job action provides some incentive for our employer, the government, to invite us back to the table with a meaningful proposal that meets the demands our members gave us," she said.

BCGEU president Stephanie Smith said the union is targeting liquor distribution centres because it's a 'revenue-generating business for government.' (CBC)

If the government does not come back to the table, she said the union will assess and "escalate" its job action further.

Union treasurer Paul Finch, when asked what the union is looking for, said cost of living adjustment protections could mean "different things."

"What we're looking for is to protect our wages from a wage cut due to inflation," Finch said, adding wage increase percentages could be worked out at the bargaining table.

"What we're looking for is a fair deal that our members can vote for."

Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon said in a statement that strike action would not affect essential services, with the B.C. Labour Relations Board having set interim service levels for those workers.

He acknowledged the union's concerns about inflation but said the government's offer of an up to 10.99 per cent pay raise over three years and a $2,500 signing bonus is "the most generous wage increase in at least the last 30 years."

"We remain committed to the collective bargaining process and to reaching a fair and reasonable agreement," Kahlon said.

Restaurant, bar owners say they're paying the price

The B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association said targeting the liquor distribution centres is "unfair" to restaurants already struggling to get back on their feet after the pandemic. Association president Ian Tostenson said business owners will start to feel the pressure by the end of the week if a strike lasts.

"If we go two or three days and we're not able to get stock out of the [B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch], we're likely going to start to see shortages in our restaurants," said Tostenson.

Restaurateurs who stop receiving deliveries during a strike would be able to go to retail stores to restock, but that would only work until retail stores start running out. Tostenson said the "saving grace" is that restaurants in B.C. can buy directly from local wineries and breweries.

"In the worst-case scenario, we can access product from British Columbia ... just not import beers and spirits," he said.

Eric Fergie, co-owner of Fets Whiskey Kitchen in Vancouver, says the labour action is another disruption after years of COVID-related impacts to getting stocks of American and Scotch whiskies.

"This is just going to make it just that much worse," Fergie said. "Because we're very specialized in what we do, we are going to be hit almost immediately."

LISTEN | BCGEU president speaks to union's decision to picket liquor distribution centres:

B.C.'s largest public sector union has announced plans to begin targeted job action after negotiations with the province reached an impasse. The BC General Employees Union says today's job action will include picket lines. The lines will go up at 3:30 pm this afternoon in front of four BC Liquor distribution centres - including in Delta and Richmond. We reach Stephanie Smith, president of the BC General Employees’ Union, and chair of the bargaining committee for more.

With files from CBC's The Early Edition and Meera Bains and The Canadian Press

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