Quebec liquor workers want honest inquiry into SAQ problems | National Union of Public and General Employees

Quebec liquor workers want honest inquiry into SAQ problems

Narrow inquiry fuels hidden agenda of corporate interests seeking privatization.

Quebec City (28 Feb. 2006) - The union representing Quebec liquor store employees - the Syndicat des employes de magasins et bureaux de la SAQ - is warning against privatization of liquor sales in the province.

Privatization in Alberta has led to higher prices, lower wages and poorer choice at a great many stores, and there is no reason to believe it would be any different if Quebec's SAQ is sold off to private business, the union argues.

The SAQ is the government-operated Societe des alcools du Quebec.

The province's auditor-general is currently investigating a price-fixing scandal by a number of SAQ executive members, prompting renewed calls by the business community for privatization of the agency.

The union backs the investigation but says the probe should be broadened to review the entire operation of the agency and the way crown corporations are run in Quebec.

Rather than make a serious attempt to resolve problems and restore public confidence in the SAQ, the government is using a narrow inquiry, and the confusion and controversy it is generating, to undermine the SAQ and open the door to privatization, it suggests.

"Privatization is not a panacea," says Claudette Carbonneau, head of the Confederation des syndicats nationaux (CSN), which includes the SAQ employees' union. "In crisis situations, we have to avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water."

The union's analysis of several studies of the privatization in Alberta (by the Fraser Institute, Statistics Canada and others) shows that neither consumers nor government coffers have necessarily benefited, she notes.

Prices up 39%, wages down 36%

Between 1992, the first year of privatization, and 2004, Alberta alcohol prices rose 39% compared with 21% in Quebec and 27% in Ontario, Carbonneau says. Meanwhile, the hourly wages of liquor store employees dropped by 36%.

In a comparison of 45 randomly chosen wines and spirits at the SAQ, the government-run Liquor Control Board of Ontario and a high-end private liquor store in Calgary, (where the selection and quality matched that of the SAQ), the union found many prices were highest at the privately run store.

The number of liquor outlets in Alberta more than tripled after privatization (from 310 to 1,087) but, unlike the SAQ, service levels and consumer choice have suffered and now vary widely across the province.

The union concedes some savings to consumers have resulted in Alberta but prices, as well as quality, selection and service, now vary widely across Alberta. And while the total number of liquor products available to consumers in Alberta is greater than Quebec (12,000 vs. 7,000), a great many of these products are not available in most stores, the union notes.

In fact, the average store in Alberta stocks only 200 to 300 products, compared to about 1,000 at an SAQ outlet.

Quebec a model of uniformity

"What is interesting about the Quebec model is a uniformity of price and product availability all across the province," Carbonneau said. "Even in small outlets, if something is not available, you can always order it."

Charbonneau says a thorough review and reform of the laws that govern crown corporations is necessary in Quebec to guarantee transparency, ensure that board members are selected on merit, not political affiliation, and to clearly define government financial goals.

These are the solutions that will best serve the public interest, not privatization, she argues.

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is monitoring activities by corporate interests across the country who are seeking to wrest control of public liquor agencies from public hands. NUPGE

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