The attempt by LCBO workers to stop the expansion of beer, wine and canned-cocktail sales to corner stores is a little hard to figure for those who dwell in the rational world. There is absolutely no chance whatsoever that the Doug Ford government is going to go back on the expansion, which is a deal that takes effect next month.

Ford made it abundantly clear at a media availability on Wednesday that he’s not backing down on the plan. And yet, Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) president JP Hornick says this latest bit of “privatization” is where the union has drawn its “line in the sand.” Hornick went so far as to suggest that the union was “making history.”

If only this boneheaded move was unique. In fact, the strike is a perfect illustration of the central delusion of public sector unions, the idea that they can and should dictate government policies. It’s a notion that rests on a shaky foundation of anti-business ideology and hubris. In the unions’ world, it doesn’t matter if a democratically elected government is acting on an explicit election promise. Ford promised the corner store alcohol sales in 2018 and now he’s finally delivering.

If the union thinks its tactic will garner public support, it needs to think again. Consumers have no reason to oppose more convenient retail locations and the strike is only mildly inconveniencing them. The strike will hurt the LCBO financially, but it’s not like the government relies very much on the Crown corporation’s income. Ontario anticipates $205.7 billion in total revenue this fiscal year. The LCBO typically supplies about $2.5 billion of that, just over one per cent.

The people being hurt, in addition to the workers themselves, are Ontario alcohol producers, who rely on the LCBO to sell their products, and the bar and restaurant industry, which has to get all of its supply from the LCBO.

The LCBO is responding to the strike with all the deftness and good management one would expect from a cumbersome government monopoly. The company promised that its wholesale operation would continue as usual, but it hasn’t. Restaurateurs are reporting delays and product shortages. A plan to open five stores to serve industry customers directly was cancelled after the union said it would picket the sites. Who couldn’t have foreseen that?

The disruption could hurt the wholesale customers that the LCBO, and its workers, ultimately rely on, but that seems to have eluded OPSEU. It has taken workers out on strike on an unwinnable issue, but the union hasn’t even formally responded to the LCBO’s offer on wages, benefits and job security. Those are the issues that matter most.

The union is afraid that Ford will let the LCBO wither away. Expanding retail sales opportunities might reduce LCBO retail volume, but the government has no intention of giving up an easy source of cash. “We are not privatizing the LCBO. We are not selling the LCBO,” Ford said Wednesday.

The union has been particularly irked by a move to add ready-to-drink cocktails to the original corner store plan. The premier explained the government’s situation in business terms, saying the addition “involves a very small percentage of overall sales,” that won’t hurt the LCBO. He added, “If you are a wholesaler, that’s where you make money.”

Ford reminded Ontarians that the LCBO will continue to be “the largest liquor wholesaler in the world.” Clearly, he thinks that’s something good, but looked at another way, no other jurisdiction anywhere has given itself such a large monopoly on alcohol sales. Maybe they know something Ontarians don’t.

Ford is keen on a form of retail competition, although the LCBO will still be the exclusive wholesaler and set minimum liquor prices. The LCBO’s wholesale empire will remain untouched. Should it?

Why is government involved in the booze business at all? Imagine a normal world where alcohol was just like any other product. There wouldn’t be a single wholesaler that every retailer, restaurant and bar had to rely on. If workers at Acme Booze Wholesale went on strike, customers would just move to their competitors. That’s how most of the business world works.

Instead, Ontario has a misguided union disrupting business activities, a government monopoly that can’t serve its customers, and a premier who is essentially powerless to do anything more than exhort the union to come to its senses.

Ford has come part way to rationality on the alcohol industry, certainly farther than any of his predecessors. His retail expansion is the right thing to do. The only reason to hold on to the wholesale business is revenue. Why can’t the government just settle for the taxes that alcohol wholesalers would pay? That’s the way it treats every normal business.

It’s time the premier asked himself if the booze business is worth the distraction from the government’s real work.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa journalist.
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