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Industry fears shortages at cannabis, liquor stores amid strike at B.C. distribution centres

Liquor sector advocates say BCGEU’s picketing at the warehouses was a ‘selfish move’
The strike at BC Liquor Distribution Branches is delaying product launches of new brands like Zyre, which CEO Audrey Wong called an example of the innovation-stifling issues that come part-and-parcel with the industry. (Photo: provided by Zyre).

A few days in and job action at BC Liquor and Cannabis distribution branches in the province is already having a trickle effect on operators of local shops.

Zyre CEO Audrey Wong intended to launch her latest product, flavored full-spectrum vape cartridges, but has been forced to halt those plans – all while still paying for operating costs.

As the only Asian woman led locally-owned cannabis vape brand on the B.C. market, retailers were buzzing to order from Zyre. However, consumers won’t be able to buy until the warehouses begin distributing again.

On Monday (Aug. 15) the BCGEU began picketing outside four of its distribution branches – in Delta, Kamloops, Richmond and Victoria – amid a breakdown in bargaining with the Public Service Agency. It’s the first phase of job action announced by the union representing 33,000 employees in sectors from victim’s services to casinos.

In B.C, all recreational cannabis and a majority of alcohol is processed through a provincial distribution branch before heading to storefronts.

Wong, who was formerly an executive at the B.C. liquor distribution branch, said there are benefits and challenges to the governments’ role in the cannabis market: it is easier for smaller companies with a unique product to get shelf space, but unexpected delays should be expected.

“This is part-and-parcel with unfortunately being in a very volatile industry that is so full of political influence and bureaucracy.”

The Retail Cannabis Council of BC and BC Craft Farmers Co-op have called for an essential service plan to keep the warehouses moving while labour negotiations with the BCGEU continue.

Secretary of the BC Farmers Craft Co-op David Hurford said many B.C. consumers know how to find illegal sources of cannabis if dispensaries run out product.

“We completely respect the union’s right to take this action, but it is up to the government to have a contingency plan in place.”

The groups also want to see a loosening of restrictions on direct sales from farms to retailers to curb shortage risks. Applications for farmers to sell directly to stores opened on Aug. 15 and a few have been approved, but no individual products have been green-lit.

BCGEU president and chair at the negotiating table Stephanie Smith said cannabis is not an essential service under the labour relations code and the definition of an essential service under pandemic regulations is a different legal concept. The government never indicated cannabis or liquor was essential during the last five months of discussion about essential service levels, she said.

The Labour Relations Board can mandate an essential service facility maintain a certain level of staffing to keep providing a service if it is needed to prevent immediate and serious danger to the health, safety or welfare of residents.

Smith told Black Press Media negotiations will continue when the government agrees to return to the bargaining table with a offer to meaningfully protect the 33,000 members’ wages from erosion due to inflation.

In a statement, Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon attempted to assure British Columbians that essential services will remain available, holding steady that the government’s Shared Recovery Mandate offers “most generous wage increase in at least the last 30 years” to address periods of high inflation and economic pressure.

Liquor stores could also see impacts

Alliance of Beverage Licenses executive director Jeff Guignard said the BCGEU missed its mark when it decided to demonstrate at the distribution branches instead of government-owned liquor stores, because it hurts private sellers in the liquor industry more than the government.

ABLE BC is a non-profit that advocates on behalf of retail and on-premise liquor and cannabis sellers. Roughly 40 per cent of alcohol in the province is sorted through the distribution centres the BCGEU is striking at, Guignard said.

Many pubs will continue to receive deliveries of certain B.C. beverages, because regulations allow direct delivery from certain provincial breweries, distilleries and wineries. However, relatively inexpensive and popular drinks will be in short supply if this strike lasts a week, Guignard said.

By Tuesday (Aug. 16), Guignard was upping his efforts to lobby the government to allow for some made-in-B.C. pre-mixed drinks — like Hey Y’All hard iced teas — to be sold directly to retailers and pubs.

President of ABLE BC and owner of The Haney Public House, Yvan Charette, owns two non-medical dispensaries, 1st Cannabis and Greenstar Cannabis, which he estimates have roughly a week-and-a-half’s worth of inventory.

Pubs will be the first to run short on beverages and some will have to send staff home when that happens, he estimates.

“You listen to BCGEU commercials on the radio, that they care about communities and stuff,” he said. “They are bringing us into their fight. It is quite a selfish move as far as I’m concerned… If this drags on, it is going to be catastrophic.”

About the Author: Morgana Adby, Local Journalism Initiative

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