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Pa. Liquor Store Battle: Unions Vs. Consumers

Unions are wielding their influence in the battle over whether to privatize Pennsylvania liquor stores

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent 

HARRISBURG — Don't touch that bottle. 

It belongs to Pennsylvania, at least for now. 

Richard Granger, clad in a bright yellow shirt, is pleased. He stood alongside dozens of people Wednesday on the marble steps of the state Capitol, the most obvious sign of layers of effort that helped stop a vote to privatize Pennsylvania's state-owned liquor business.

Granger and his brightly-clad comrades are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union that represents many of the nearly 5,000 workers in Pennsylvania’s liquor business. The union led the opposition to the privatization plan pushed by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, staging a sit-in at the Capitol and telling members to voice their opposition to local lawmakers. 

Granger and others refused to claim victory on Wednesday, saying they would continue to vocally oppose the privatization plan until there was no chance for it to become law. 

“It may be an anachronism, but it works for Pennsylvania,” Granger said of the state-owned and operated liquor store system. 

It certainly works for the unions, though at one point on Monday night the idea seemed headed for the proverbial gutter. But House Republicans cut off debate after 10 p.m. That came after several hours of talk without taking a vote on the proposal, which was in a proposed amendment offered by Turzai. 

Promised votes Tuesday and Wednesday failed to materialize as the union sit-in continued and other unions urged its members to call lawmakers and urge opposition. Turzai told reporters Wednesday the bill would remain on the House’s voting calendar for Monday — their next session day — but other Republicans said the number of votes for the measure had declined after behind-closed-door meetings Tuesday and Wednesday. 

The UFCW got plenty of help from other unions. The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, one of the largest labor unions in the state, among others, sent notices to members asking them to call lawmakers about the liquor privatization bill. 

We need to make sure our representatives hear from as many people as possible about why this blatant giveaway from extreme politicians to their corporate donors is bad for Pennsylvania working families,” one statement from the union said. 

Union groups have argued that more than 4,500 jobs will be lost if the state system is privatized, but Republicans have countered by arguing that the 1,600 private sector stores will create additional opportunities for jobs — including union jobs. 

Steve Miskin, Turzai’s spokesman, downplayed the role of the unions in keeping the bill from getting the necessary votes. 

“Truly this is not a union issue. It’s a consumer issue. Either you’re for Pennsylvania consumers and taxpayers or you are against them,” he said. 

Other opposition to the plan came from the Pennsylvania Malt Beverage Distribution Association, which represents beer wholesalers and distributors. 

In Turzai’s plan, beer distributors would have the first shot at buying one of the 1,600 new liquor licenses — finally allowing Pennsylvanians to purchase beer and liquor in the same location — but the association said it had other concerns. Primarily, they are worried about other licenses being bought up by “big box” stores that represent competition in a previously closed marketplace. 

Ultimately, this amendment is really intended to drive beer distributors out of the market,” the association warned in a memo to its members last month. Consumers, meanwhile, remain stuck with a system that is uniquely complicated in the United States. 

Polls have consistently shown a majority of Pennsylvanians are in favor of privatizing the liquor system, but the state monopoly set up in the wake of Prohibition has remained stubborn despite numerous attempts to end it, including efforts by the past two Republican administrations in Harrisburg during the 1980s and 1990s. 

Jay Ostrich is communications director for the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank here that has been pushing for the privatization plan. He said the failure to bring the issue to a vote was a sobering reminder of government’s inability to get out of its own way. 

“When broad-based bipartisan support from voters isn't enough to get the job done, it clearly suggests something is broken under the dome,” he said in an email. 

Gov. Tom Corbett has supported the privatization plan since he took office in 2011, and reportedly was helping drum up votes from both sides of the aisle this week. Publicly, however, he played off his role in the privatization battle. 

“Do I support privatization? Absolutely,” he told reporters Tuesday. “This is a good first step, let’s get this first step done.” 

Even if the vote had been taken this week — or is taken next week — Republican leadership in the state Senate has all but shut off the possibility of approving the bill before the end of the budget process this month. 

Senate President Joe Scarnati said this week that he supported the Turzai proposal, and looked forward to working on it “in the fall.

Carol Ann June 17, 2012 at 06:03 PM
Richard Granger & comrades are members of the UFCW union that represents many of the nearly 5,000 workers in Pennsylvania’s liquor business. The union led the opposition to the privatization plan. The Pennsylvania State Legislature is controlled by a majority of republicans that claim they're priorities include "Less Government" and yet, this measure to eliminate state liquor stores died................ It's ironic that Pennsylvania takes taxpayer dollars, buys liquor, sells it back to taxpayers and then, arrests them for drinking it. ................. Pennsylvania lawmakers devised this scam decades ago to help pay for the reconstruction of a town. After which time, they've used this as a political football to keep unions on their list of supporters during election years. .............. Republicans = less government ... what bull !!
Scott Korin June 17, 2012 at 10:40 PM
Privatization means walking into a grocery store and buying a six pack, like in 48 other states. If that's going to cause a large economic hardship on the state, we have other problems.
Dolores DiBiase June 18, 2012 at 05:25 AM
PA is going to be stuck with this for awhile...too bad. Unions are a double-edged sword. I would love to be able to purchase wine direct from CA wineries...no way in this state unless you have a friend or relative in nearby NJ who will allow shipment to them. We have to put up with this because...why?
Carl W June 22, 2012 at 01:29 AM
"voice of reason Privatization allows more access for underage alcoholics to die in fiery car crashes under the influence." Absolutely - profit motive CAN and assudedly WILL lead to underage drinking. Stores very often hire military veterans - especially now, let's give them the lead on jobs. Sales penny-wise & pound foolish.!! NO, NO, No !!!! (Don't forget - working State employees will be drawing State unemployment !!!
Mark Redfox June 22, 2012 at 01:51 PM
Yeah lets lay off five thousand people because we hate unions, What is this country coming to? I am very afraid for my kids future because I see this way of thinking more and more. People see in the papers that unions are nothing but greedy thugs and they belive it because if its in the papers it must be true. I for one know first hand that way of thinking is way off. Yes, I belong to a union and I am proud of it. I make a good wage to support my family and I know thay when I am ready to retire I wont have to soley rely on social security. Will I be rich when I retire, absolutly not, but I wont be dependant on the governments social security fund if it even exists by then. My union gave me an education and they provide me with protection from an imployer if they try to terminate me WITHOUT JUST CAUSE. The argument that union pension plans are what is destroying this economy is also way off. What people dont realize is when the economy crashed the unions kept their pension money in the market. If the unions decided to take that money out of the market this country would have been devistated. Our pension money is what kept this country alive. If you dont belive it do the research. Republicans use the argument that Unions pension are whats hurting this economy while they are entilted to pensions when they retire. You cant have a pension but I can, oh come on people do you not see how hyprocritical that is?

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