TORONTO - The Liquor Control Board of Ontario and its unionized workers made a last-minute decision late Tuesday night to put aside talk of going on strike - at least for now - and continue negotiations.
A statement posted on the website of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union just 40 minutes before its midnight strike deadline suggested a deal could be reached "before long" and talks would continue until an agreement is reached or one or both parties walk away from the table.
"We would not be extending the strike deadline if we did not feel that we can reach a collective agreement through negotiation," said Vanda Klumper, chairwoman of the union bargaining team, in a statement.
"Obviously we are not going to subject our customers to the inconvenience of a work stoppage just because the negotiations ran out of time."
A spokesman for the LCBO said the decision to call off the strike is a "positive sign."
"We have been working towards a fair and negotiated agreement that we feel will be affordable for Canadians and maintain a positive work environment and continue to provide a high level of responsible service," said Chris Layton.
"I think there is on both sides a recognition we want to stay at the table and continue to talk."
News that the union is taking a step back from its plans to strike will surely come as a relief to the province's tipplers, who packed the 600-plus LCBO stores Tuesday and hoarded booze as if preparing for doomsday.
Shoppers left stores with their arms laden with bottles and cartons, and restaurateurs and business owners had shopping carts loaded tall as they stocked up in preparation for a potentially lengthy strike.
Inside liquor stores, empty boxes were strewn on the floor, and the lineups of customers wound around cleared-out shelves.
Toronto resident Bruce Wallner considered it important to hoard some hooch; he spent about $700 on liquor and organic wines to add to his personal cabinet.
"You can't run out of wine - you'd have to stop eating," he joked.
A liquor store strike would have been a double whammy for Toronto residents, who could have faced a sobering as well as smelly summer.
The city is already in the midst of a municipal strike that has brought garbage pickup to a halt and shut down city-run daycares, parks and recreation programs, swimming pools and ferry service.
The key negotiating issue for the union is fighting for the rights of casual workers. The union says those employees don't receive vacation, sick time or benefits, and can be called in to work as little as two hours at a time.
Layton took issue with the union's claim that casual employees are treated poorly, saying they are compensated fairly.
"We have casual employees, as do all other retailers, because the nature of retailing is such that you do need the flexibility to staff up when business warrants it," Layton said, adding workers make up to $18 an hour, well above the wage for private retail outlets.
The LCBO also has a low turnover rate for casual employees, which Layton said is rare in the revolving doors of retail.
"If those jobs aren't good jobs, as the suggestion is being made, why are people sticking around?"
But Craig Hadley of OPSEU argued workers are staying but have received little compensation for their loyalty.
"We're talking about people who have been working for this company for 10 or 15 years and still haven't seen a vacation day or benefit or anything," Hadley said.
He also took issue with the suggestion that workers make a good wage, saying that benefit comes only after years of service.
"The LCBO can afford to do better," Hadley said. "We're not asking for crazy things. This is just fairness."