No sympathy for the unrest at LCBO

The public is in no mood to put up with government sector employees’ demands. The tolerance threshold is low under the best of circumstances, but in the current economic climate it borders on zero

There is little sympathy to be found in Toronto, for instance, where a strike has padlocked daycare and recreation facilities as garbage piles on the streets. Most residents see the unions’ demands, which include retaining 18 bankable sick days each year, as excessive at a time when private sector workers are losing their jobs, and where those who have them are accepting concessions.

While Torontonians are dealing with what could be a long strike, the rest of the province is watching anxiously the goings-on at the LCBO. The threat of a strike closing liquor stores just as summer has finally made an appearance has been fodder for plenty of griping, and galvanized many of us to stock up, leading, ironically, to record sales levels.

In the case of the LCBO, the big stumbling block in negotiations seems to be the use of casual and part-time workers. The union argues the agency has been increasing the number of casual workers – who receive lower wages, erratic work hours and no benefits – at the expense of full-time employees.

It’s true the LCBO does pay much higher wages than is typical in the retail sector – and make no mistake, the jobs are directly comparable – but there is something in the charge that the province should be setting a better standard, especially given McGuinty government claims to support a decent, middle-class standard of living.

Critics of the union position argue LCBO employees are significantly overpaid, leading to overpriced goods on the shelves. Certainly liquor store pricing is excessive, as a quick trip to other jurisdictions, particularly the U.S., will show. That, however, is the result of indecent taxation levels. As the world’s largest buyer of alcohol, the LCBO surely pays lower prices for its products: the labour costs add to the pricing, but not in anything like the way taxes do.

From the earliest talk of a strike, many people were calling for the privatization of the LCBO, the crown jewel of those who would strip the public of assets to benefit a few.

Privatization, however, can and often does lead to higher prices, less selection and, over time, control concentrated in fewer hands – it’s not all about mom-and-pop operations. Then there’s the issue of the LCBO putting more than $1 billion a year into government coffers.

Now might be a good time, though, for the province to move on its one-time suggestion to allow the sale of beer and wine in corner stores. That would be a hugely populist and popular idea. Such a change would bring us more in line with longstanding practices in neighbouring provinces and states. It would also lessen the charge that Ontario remains far too paternal and uptight. The province currently has a hodgepodge of antiquated liquor laws. Spirits are sold only in government-owned stores; beer is sold through outlets owned by the breweries; and wine-only stores are operated by the wineries.

Then there are the hoops set up for brew-on-premises establishments, and the lack of off-sales and other conveniences takenfor granted elsewhere, among other issues.

Making beer and wine available in convenience stores and supermarkets would be a step toward a more liberalized attitude. More importantly, it would put a salve on the regular sore spot that is government control – read taxation – of alcohol in this province.

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