Saskatchewan

Workers protest Sask. closing government liquor stores, minister calls it a 'business decision'

The final 34 liquor stores operated by the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority will close their doors next year.

Some of the approximately 350 affected workers found out they would be without a job on the evening news

A man wearing a sign reading "Keep Our Public Liquor Stores Open" speaks outside in front of microphones. Behind him is a large stone legislative building.
Bob Stadnichuk is the SGEU's vice president for the retail regulatory sector. He's also among the approximately 350 people expecting to lose their jobs as the Saskatchewan government gets out of the liquor retail business. (Alexander Quon/CBC)

Hundreds of labour activists and unionized workers took to the steps of the Saskatchewan Legislature on Thursday to protest the sudden announcement that the province is getting out of the retail liquor business.

The provincial government says the move is strictly business.

The decision was outlined in the provincial government's throne speech on Wednesday.

However, the province neglected to inform the Saskatchewan Government & General Employees Union (SGEU), the union representing workers at stores operated by the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority (SLGA), prior to the speech. 

That meant many of the affected workers found out they would be without a job from social media, radio broadcasts or television news. 

Bob Stadnichuk is one of the approximately 350 employees that the SGEU believes will be laid off. They include all of the front line staff at the 34 stores that will be closed, as well as employees at SLGA's warehouse and head office. 

Stadnichuk, who also serves as the SGEU vice president for the retail regulatory sector, said the news was shocking.

"We were competitive, we were providing money to this province, so for them to come around and just literally hit us in the side of the head with this legislation, with this throne speech, was devastating for us," Stadnichuk told media.

"We don't really know how to react yet." 

Protestors led by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour protest in front of the provincial legislature on Oct. 27, 2022
Labour leaders encourage approximately 200 protestors gathered outside the Saskatchewan Legislature. The protest was organized by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour. (Alexander Quon/CBC)

The protestors arrived at the legislature in seven chartered Regina Transit buses. 

Many were in town for the Saskatchewan Federation of Labours convention in Regina. 

Hundreds of people blew whistles and carried placards, signs and flags as they quickly filled the air with chants of "Scott Moe has got to go."

Organizers from the various unions and labour groups say the decision to abruptly close the provincial stories is a microcosm of the disrespect the province has for unionized and public sector workers.

In an interview on Thursday, Minister Responsible for SLGA Lori Carr said the decision was the result of a pattern in declining revenue from retail stores. 

"As I looked at the data and I brought my recommendation forward, it was a business decision based on the facts that were in front of me," she said.

Carr said the drop in revenue comes from more Saskatchewan residents choosing to shop at private liquor stores.

She said that although the SLGA-operated stores are making a profit at the moment, the province decided to divest now before the ink turns red. 

"It really isn't, you know, the core business of government," Carr said. "If we go into losses on liquor sales, that's going to take away from possibly building a new hospital or putting it into roads or capital expenditures and really the business that government should be doing."

A sign designating a store as a Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority retail alcohol store.
Saskatchewan is getting out of the liquor retail business and will auction off the licences for its remaining 34 stores throughout the province. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

Carr said the remaining stores will begin closing in 2023, with the province launching auctions for the liquor licences associated with each store in January.

The province will continue to operate as a liquor wholesaler. 

Carr said some of those who lose their jobs when the SLGA-operated stores close will be able to find employment at the the private stores that are awarded those licences. 

Stadnichuk said the loss of unionized, government jobs with benefits will be a tough pill to swallow. He said Carr's suggestion was a joke. 

"They were jobs that actually you could raise a family on," he said.

"To suggest that we go to a minimum wage job — if that's even available, which is quite unlikely — then the dream is gone." 

One of 35 liquor stores operated by Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority that the provincial government is preparing to close in 2023.
One of 34 liquor stores operated by Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority that the provincial government is preparing to close in 2023. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

Carr said that some private operators offer comparable wages to what was offered by the SLGA, but declined to provide specifics when pressed by media on Thursday. 

The minister was non-committal when asked whether the government could have done more to inform the affected employees, instead of letting them find out through the throne speech. 

"Like I said that the decision was made to roll things out the way we did and we can't take that back at this point in time."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Quon is a reporter with CBC Saskatchewan based in Regina. After working in Atlantic Canada for four years he's happy to be back in his home province. He has previously worked with the CBC News investigative unit in Nova Scotia and Global News in Halifax. Alexander specializes in data-reporting, COVID-19 and municipal political coverage. He can be reached at: Alexander.Quon@cbc.ca.

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