Liquor clerks to fight privatization

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The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's unionized clerks have declared "war" on Gov. Tom Corbett's plan to dismantle Pennsylvania's government-operated wine and spirits sales operation.

On Monday, PLCB employees met at four hotels in Western Pennsylvania to discuss their game plan going forward and to vote on a temporary dues increase.

On its Facebook page, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23 asked employees to "spend your Martin Luther King Jr. holiday saving your job. ... This is no time to 'sit back and see what happens' -- this is WAR!" At the meetings, leaders asked members to "fight the threat" of privatization.

"We want a responsible approach to reducing the budget deficit," said Richard Granger, Local 23's strategic programs director. "We do not believe that outsourcing, or privatizing, these state jobs [is] a good approach."

Mr. Corbett was sworn in on Tuesday.

Unionized employees of the PLCB, while active in politicking, have a limited history of job actions. In 1998, Local 23 floated the idea of a one-day strike to protest an impasse in contract negotiations but then spiked the idea when union leaders from Philadelphia's UFCW 1776, which represents about two-thirds of the unionized state store clerks, wouldn't go along with the walkout.

Two years later, both locals were still fighting with then-Gov. Tom Ridge, who refused to sign a new labor contract that included a standard successor clause forcing anyone who bought a state store (if the system would have been dismantled and privatized then) to hire the clerks at their contracted salaries. Eventually, that guarantee clause was dropped in exchange for a promise that the unionized workers would be first in line at buying stores if privatization ever happened.

That agreement broke a seven-year stalemate between the UFCW and the state.

Mr. Ridge first sought to privatize the state store system in 1997, an attempt that failed, killed by lawmakers on both the right and left. Gov. Dick Thornburgh tried but failed, too.

But with a big budget deficit looming, proponents of privatization hope to make the case that a PLCB windfall would go a long way toward plugging that hole.

State Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, and others say the sale of wholesale and retail licenses could net the state a one-time windfall of $2 billion.

The UFCW says that estimate is based on faulty data -- to get $2 billion from the auctioning of 850 retail and wholesale licenses would mean each license sells for almost $2.4 million even though "comparable licenses have not been shown to be worth anything close to that anywhere in the nation."

Mr. Corbett did not mention specific political goals in his inaugural address Tuesday, but Lt. Gov. James Cawley said privatization forces may have the leverage they need this time.

"We're very serious about that," he said.


Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com .


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