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BC liquor workers to strike in Vancouver, Victoria, Kamloops

The union for B.C.'s liquor distribution system issued a 72-hour strike notice this morning, saying workers will picket three distribution branches early next week.

The strike comes as an attempt to draw attention to failed mediations between the Crown corporation and its unionized workers over wage increases and privatization.

Employees at a main distribution branch in Vancouver, a customer service centre in Victoria, and a Kamloops warehouse will begin a 24-hour work stoppage on Monday evening, said B.C. Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU) President Darryl Walker in a statement on the union's website.

"We were kinda running out of options," said BCGEU Chief Negotiator David Vipond, who added the choice to strike at the three locations was strategic. Each of the facilities is on the "auction block," slated for sale to private owners, he said.  

The short job action comes after six months of stalled negotiations that started in early January.  

Two weeks ago, unionized workers and Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) management agreed to appoint a mediator to try and resolve the dispute over wages. Those negotiations fell through early this week when the union asked the mediator to "book out."

Walker said union workers have been without a wage increase since 2009, and the job action was needed to break the impasse at the negotiating table. The province, in contrast, has been reluctant to approve wage and benefit increases in a time of fiscal restraint.

Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said in an earlier press statement that the province doesn't want to download costs onto future generations. Currently, Crown corporations must negotiate under a net-zero mandate created by the government, according to a fact sheet provided by a ministry spokesperson.

Under the mandate, government employers have the right to negotiate with their unionized workers but must offset any wage or benefit increase with savings elsewhere, said the sheet. Falcon earlier said the government would sell off roughly $700 million worth of LDB assets as a way to make up for 2012-13 budget shortfalls.

But Vipond said that privatization runs counter to good business sense and would result in costlier booze for customers. Instead of selling off facilities, the province should be looking for opportunities, he said.

"This is a matter of opening liquor stores on Sundays and having normal business hours and opening where there's an obvious need for it," he said.

He added the province should be following Ontario's example, pointing to a 2012 commission by the Ontario Ministry of Finance. The commission concluded the privatization of publicly owned liquor distribution was a risky and irreversible choice. It recommended improving acquisitions and mark-ups, and expanding the number of stores instead.

Vipond said the union isn't "spoiling for a fight" and wants to return to negotiations soon. He added the strike action would have little impact on liquor store customers. Only one store attached to the Vancouver warehouse would be closed for a day, he said.

Adam Pez is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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