SAQ, union head back to negotiating table as workers restock store shelves

Warehouse and delivery workers with the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) could be going back on strike, after 86 per cent of the workers voted to reject a tentative agreement Monday night.

SAQ says most stores have about a week's worth of stock

Shelves are bare on Tuesday at this SAQ outlet in Montreal. Catherine Dagenais, president and chief executive officer of the SAQ, says there will be holes in stock come Christmastime. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Even though the Quebec liquor board's warehouse and delivery workers rejected a tentative agreement this week, their union says they'll be back at the negotiation table Wednesday and any threats of a walkout are on hold for now.

But the concern remains: Shelves are sparsely stocked and even bare at some Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) retail locations.

Workers approved an indefinite general strike on Nov. 22., but returned later that week when the union reached a tentative agreement with the SAQ.

The repercussions from that walkout, even though it lasted only a few days, were seen at retail outlets throughout Quebec. Shelves usually full of wine and liquor quickly thinned. 

On Monday night, however, 86 per cent of those approximately 800 warehouse and delivery workers gave the proposed agreement a thumb's down.

Negotiations to continue

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), affiliated with the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ), refused to give an interview Tuesday afternoon, saying in a statement that "all energy will be deployed at the negotiating table in order to reach a new agreement."

Union advisor Michel Gratton said the walkout was suspended to give negotiations one last chance. 

"We had an agreement, but it was refused by the members," he said in a statement.

Union advisor Michel Gratton says members want to ensure Quebecers have access to SAQ products over the holidays. (Anna Asimakopulos/CBC)

He said on Tuesday that the union wants all Quebecers to have access to SAQ products in time for the holidays and "we are therefore starting tomorrow in new intensive talks with management."

One of the issues at the heart of the dispute was the entry salary.

Gratton said some members receive only $17 per hour at entry level. He said there are concerns about too much overtime and members have expressed worry over workplace safety.

SAQ works to keep shelves stocked

Catherine Dagenais, president and chief executive officer of the SAQ, said she was both surprised and disappointed that the agreement was rejected.

"We had difficulties hiring at the warehouse level in the last year," she said. 

"This is one of the elements that was part of the agreement. Our entry salaries were a little low, less competitive. It is something that we had settled in the agreement in principle."

She said her priority is finding a solution with the union, and making sure restaurants and consumers have stock for the upcoming holiday season.

"Yes, the stock is there," she said, "but it needs to be received at our locations."

Dagenais said she has visited stores and has seen the empty shelves. Most SAQ locations across the province have about a week's worth of stock, she said.

Some stores were slated to get more stock on Tuesday, while the strike remained suspended, she said.

When asked about the strike potentially resuming, Dagenais said the SAQ still has "every intention" to sit down and negotiate with the union.

"We want to get back to the negotiating table as quickly as possible," she said in a statement.

Regardless, there will likely be holes in the stock by Christmastime she said, but "there is still going to be some variety."

She said the SAQ is making every effort to replenish branch shelves and restock restaurants as quickly as possible.

The SAQ's unionized warehouse workers have been without a contract since April.

With files from Tout un matin and Radio-Canada