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Quebec liquor warehouse workers reject deal, negotiations to resume on Wednesday


MONTREAL — Quebec's liquor corporation is set to resume negotiations Wednesday with the union representing warehouse workers after they overwhelmingly rejected a deal for a new contract.

Union leaders had recommended that members accept the Nov. 29 tentative agreement, the details of which have not been made public, but members voted 86 per cent against the deal in results announced Monday night.

The rejection had Quebecers worried Tuesday about the possibility of a strike limiting supplies of wine and spirits as the holidays approach. The warehouse workers went out on strike for two days on Nov. 22, and the impact was seen in stores as stocks were depleted.

Wages, overtime and the precarious status of employees had been the main sticking points in negotiations with the union representing the Crown corporation's 800 warehouse and delivery employees.

On Tuesday afternoon, many wines and spirits were unavailable at one SAQ outlet in Montreal's trendy Plateau-Mont-Royal borough. Local resident Stefan Kuhnlein said he's been going regularly to check if his favourite wine is back on the shelves but so far hasn't had any luck.

"When I saw that the shelves were empty, I told myself I needed to quickly buy things, especially ahead of the holidays before there's nothing left," Kuhnlein said. "But everything was already gone!"

Martin Vézina, a spokesperson for the Quebec Restaurant Association, said members were disappointed to hear the warehouse employees rejected the offer.

While the strike is still suspended as negotiations resume, Vézina said if warehouse workers were to walk out again, restaurants could face a significant shortage of alcoholic beverages.

"In the next few weeks, our bookings are full," he said. "We are allowed to welcome customers for Christmas meals, and they are answering the invitation. We can't be without wine."

Vézina said most restaurants are still dealing with delivery delays from the two-day strike that took place before the tentative agreement.  

For Natalie Laporte, another Montreal resident running errands Tuesday, the lack of products at her local liquor store presented an opportunity to discover other retailers. "I will drink ciders that I'll get from one of Quebec's cider producers," she said.

Finance Minister Eric Girard told reporters in Quebec City on Tuesday the conflict needs to be resolved before Christmas, but the liquor corporation's president warned Quebecers should not expect things to return to normal in time for the holidays. 

"There are going to be empty spots (on shelves) up until Christmas, but there is going to be some variety," Catherine Dagenais said in an interview with 98.5 FM.

The executive committee of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the union representing the warehouse employees, met on Tuesday to decide its next steps but didn't provide any details on why the offer was rejected.

"As the holidays approach, we want all Quebecers to have access to the SAQ products, and we are therefore starting tomorrow in new intensive talks with management," union representative Michel Gratton said in a statement.

Gratton had mentioned the entry-level salary for certain members was only $17 an hour, but Dagenais said that issue was addressed in the tentative agreement.

"We had difficulties hiring at the warehouse level in the last year," Dagenais said. "Our entry-level salaries were a little low, less competitive. It is something that we had settled in the agreement in principle."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2021.

— With files from Lia Lévesque

Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press