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Liquor Mart workers rally at Manitoba Legislature to demand wage increases as strike enters 2nd week

Hundreds of striking Liquor Mart workers took to the steps of the Manitoba Legislature Tuesday, calling on the provincial government to negotiate an end to a weeks-long labour dispute that has closed down most of the province’s liquor stores.

The rally comes a day after an independent conciliator recommended binding arbitration to settle the dispute over wage increases between Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries and the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, which represents about 1,400 workers with the Crown-owned corporation.

While Liquor & Lotteries said Monday it had accepted a conciliator’s proposal for arbitration, MGEU says it wants to ensure that process is fair before agreeing to it.

“We’re open to binding arbitration, but not on Premier [Heather] Stefanson’s terms, and not without seeing all the details,” union president Kyle Ross said during Tuesday’s rally.

“We have work to do with the conciliator before we agree to anything.”

‘A slap in the face’

Several workers at the rally said their wages have failed to keep up with the rising cost of living, as well as the challenges they’ve faced working through the COVID-19 pandemic and a wave of thefts in recent years. 

Janice Jackson, who has worked for Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries for 15 years, said Liquor Mart employees were left feeling humiliated, depressed and anxious while dealing with an epidemic of thefts in 2018 and 2019. 

“Some of us never truly recovered,” she told those gathered at Tuesday’s rally.

The contract the Crown corporation has proposed doesn’t acknowledge everything workers have been through, said Jackson.

“We thought we would be offered a contract that acknowledged our suffering and our worth. We thought that we would finally be able to catch up to these runaway increases to the cost of living,” she said. 

“What we’ve been given instead is a slap in the face.” 

The 1,400 Liquor & Lotteries employees represented by MGEU have been without a contract since their last collective agreement expired in March 2022.

The most recent offer by Liquor & Lotteries includes a two per cent wage increase each year, with a signing bonus for some workers, the Crown corporation’s CEO said last week.

The union has previously said a 3.3 per cent increase would be fair, as that number is tied to the consumer price index.

Liquor Mart employees began limited job action in July, but expanded that to a full provincewide strike one week ago.

Under current labour laws, parties involved in a labour dispute can apply for binding arbitration —  in which a decision is legally enforceable — if a strike or lockout continues for 60 days.

In a statement issued Monday, Ross accused the provincial government of “trying desperately to end the strike without ever making a fair offer” by pushing for arbitration before the 60 days.

He said the union would be open to binding arbitration if a “fairness floor” — a point below which the arbitrated settlement cannot fall — was part of the process.

“Unfortunately, the government chose to go public with its call for arbitration before we could even get into discussion about what the process would look like,” said Ross.

Liquor & Lotteries accused the union on Tuesday of prolonging the strike “by saying the only way they would agree is if the arbitrator was bound to minimum general wage increases that are exactly the same as MGEU’s original demands.”

“Effectively, they will only go to arbitration if they get exactly what they have been asking for all along — making arbitration moot,” Liquor & Lotteries CEO Gerry Sul said in a statement.

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