Province backs down on liquor store privatization 

B.C. Liquor Stores will remain in public hands after all, as the provincial government reached a tentative contract agreement with the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union last week.

The government of Premier Gordon Campbell started negotiations with the union more than a month ago to extend contracts for all 28,000 government union members by two years. The BCGEU made the privatization of liquor stores, which would have resulted in thousands of lay-offs across the province, the central issue in contract negotiations.

Eager to have an agreement in place that would essentially result in no pay increases for unionized government employees until the new contract extension expires in March of 2006, the province agreed to shelve its plans for privatizing liquor stores. As well, the union agreed to more flexibility to enhance retail services "with longer hours of operation."

The union was also granted job security provisions effective April 1, 2004, that guarantee employment until the contract extension expires on March 31, 2006.

The government would not comment on its decision, waiting until the contract could be ratified and voted on by union members. The union is recommending that members accept the contract extension.

"When the bargaining committee members accepted the government’s invitation to begin talks earlier than usual, we had one main goal – to improve employment security for government employees," said George Heyman, President of the BCGEU.

"It hasn’t been easy. At times these talks were testy and frustrating. For that reason, the committee members greatly appreciate the words of encouragement and support we received from so many members. We now have a deal that we believe is worthy of your endorsation."

Other aspects of the agreement include improvements in meal and vehicle allowances, payments to auxiliaries in cash instead of benefits, and statutory holiday pay for auxiliaries, increased funding to the pension plan, and some extensions of health and welfare benefits.

The government first announced plans to privatize liquor distribution back in July of 2002, with Competition, Science and Enterprise Minister Rick Thorpe observing that the "government brings no special talents or purpose to retailing, warehousing or distributing alcohol."

Earlier this year responsibility for privatization of liquor stores was transferred to Solicitor General Rich Coleman, who is also responsible for public safety. Under his ministry the privatization plans were reconsidered.

The government owns and operates 224 liquor stores as well as two warehouses.

The BCGEU initially objected to the plan on the grounds that it would cost the province more than $650 million a year in revenues.

For Whistler’s independent cold beer and wine stores, the decisions to shelve privatization plans and extend hours at government stores will have a negative impact.

"If they say longer hours, for Whistler that means they will try to open up again on Sunday, both stores, which will have the biggest hit on our business," said Bonnie Casavant, the co-owner and operator of the Blackcomb Beer and Wine Store.

Keeping the stores public will also close a potential market for independents, she said.

"The biggest point for us was that we would have the ability to act as distribution centres for businesses and restaurants around Whistler," said Casavant.

"The plans now seem pretty vague, and we were expecting the (privatization) to take forever anyway. I don’t know if this pushes it back another five years or indefinitely," she said. "I guess we’ll have to wait and see. My feeling is that the privatization issue isn’t closed yet."

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