British Columbia

Employees at private B.C. liquor store vote to unionize, as pandemic profits soar

Employees at a private B.C. liquor store hope their successful vote to unionize catches on at other locations, as they prepare to negotiate for improved working conditions with their employer.

Workers say rise in profits hasn't improved their wages or working conditions

Seventy-five per cent of employees at Jak's Beer Wine and Spirits in Maple Ridge voted to form a union last week. (Submitted by Quentin Rowe-Codner)

Employees at a private B.C. liquor store say they hope their successful vote to unionize catches on at other locations, as they prepare to negotiate a collective agreement with their employer for the first time.

Last week, 75 per cent of employees at the Jak's Beer Wine and Spirits store in Maple Ridge voted yes to forming a union under the umbrella of the Service Employees International Union Local 2

They say while liquor store profits have increased during the pandemic, it hasn't translated into improved conditions for essential workers, like the ones who work at the store, even though business is better than ever.

"When the pandemic first started, it felt like it was Christmas around here," said Quentin Rowe-Codner who's worked as a clerk at the store for nearly two years.

Despite the increased volume, he says nothing changed for the workers.

"It was a realization for a lot of people that the bosses just weren't on our side essentially."

Beer is pictured on the shelves of a liquor store in Vancouver on July 12, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
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Rowe-Codner, who makes around $15 an hour at the store, says employee grievances included low wages and inconsistent work hours.

"Some of our most valuable employees who have encyclopedic knowledge of different spirits or wine or anything like that, they're not making very much more than me either."

He says he and a fellow employee, Daylan Kellough, started talking about a union drive in early July. Despite a fairly high turnover rate, Rowe-Codner says, 12 employees participated in the vote, with nine of them voting to form a union.

The company issued a statement in response to the Maple Ridge store employees union drive saying that it offers employees a "competitive total compensation package, including dental and medical benefits with 100% of premiums paid for staff who work over 24 hours a week."

"Ultimately, we respect the wishes of our employees and will work with the union moving forward," reads the statement.

Jak's Beer Wine and Spirits says it offers medical and dental benefits to its employees. (Jak's Beer Wine and Spirits)

The president of the Canadian Labour Congress says while it's too early in the year to say whether the pandemic has contributed to more unionization, he has noticed an increase in interest in unionizing from workers in the health-care sector and the food-and-beverage sector.

"Those businesses were operating, whether it was a grocery store, a liquor store, the list went on," said Hassan Yussuf. "Many of these workers, of course, had to deal with the reality as to what they were paid, despite the danger of putting themselves on the front-lines."

While Yussuf and Rowe-Codner are hopeful that this union drive might inspire other retail locations, a labour economist says the labour movement has been declining in Canada.

"One of the big obstacles to unions organizing new workers [and] workplaces in the last several decades has been a decline in large manufacturing firms and resource firms," said UBC professor Craig Riddell.

"Retail outlets are trying to organize a very small number of employees [and] often they're high turnover workplaces. That makes it harder to start getting an organizing drive."

Despite the challenges, Rowe-Codner is hopeful that he and his fellow employees will be able to negotiate a successful first contract with Jak's managers.

"We feel as though we don't really have a say in our working lives and that's really the root of the problem."

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