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A move to privatize all of PA’s liquor sales draws familiar opponents

Larry Duke, owner of Schumer's Wine and Liquors, sits by his dog, Klaus, as they wait for customers. Duke kept his store open during the pandemic even as the city emptied out.
Larry Duke, owner of Schumer's Wine and Liquors, sits by his dog, Klaus, as they wait for customers. Duke kept his store open during the pandemic even as the city emptied out.

HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) – A proposal to allow fully privatize alcohol sales in Pennsylvania is drawing backlash from some of the state’s several thousand liquor store employees and the union that represents them.

The Keystone State has heavily regulated booze since the end of Prohibition in the 1930s. It’s gradually eased restrictions on beer and wine sales, most recently in 2016, but state-owned stores still control hard liquor. Under that system, state government gets to keep a portion of store profits and earned $185 million for agencies and projects just last year.

Republicans and Democrats have tried and failed to privatize sales for decades, arguing the state-owned model unfairly restricts liquor sales. This time, a group of Republicans led by State Rep. Natalie Mihalek (R-Allegheny) are trying to change the state’s constitution to get it done.

“When it comes to the purchase of alcohol, our laws are antiquated and inconvenient,” Mihalek said.

But dozens of Fine Wine and Good Spirits employees, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, rallied against the move in Harrisburg Monday. They argue, as they have in the past, that thousands of state jobs would be at risk if liquor stores were handed over to private owners.

Billie Moyer, who works at a state-owned store in Greenville, said she’s been to Harrisburg many times over her more-than-30 year career to protest this idea. Her message has not changed in that time: the state and the UFCW have made working in a liquor store a worthwhile career.

“It’s good paying, the union’s been good to me,” she said. “We’re not gonna get jobs out there that are going to treat us as well and pay us as good as we get paid.”

“It [privatization] would be devastating to me at this point in my life. I have seven years and I can retire,” Moyer added.

Moyer said her store, which is near the Ohio border, frequently gets customers who have crossed the border in search of cheaper booze. Privatization supporters have argued state-owned stores aren’t as competitive with neighboring states.

“I have a lot of Ohio customers that come my way because they say we’re cheaper and they like the services they give,” she said.

Denise Brown of Philadelphia, another state liquor store worker, said she’s worried she would have to find a new job if private owners took over her store.

“You don’t have nobody [sic] to represent you, unionize and so forth, and these folks can set up shop anywhere,” Brown said. “They can say to you, you know what? Thank you for your 12 or 20, 30 years and so forth, but we don’t need you anymore.”

UFCW Local 1776 president Wendell Young, who spoke on the proposal before a House committee Monday, said privatization measures have long created unnecessary uncertainty for state liquor store workers.

“Every couple of years…people in this building, for whatever reason, are trying to put them out of work. And they go to work despite that,” Young said.

Those who back fully private booze sales said deals could be struck to protect state liquor store jobs. One proposal in 2015, offered up by former Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai, would have made it easier for those workers to get other jobs at state agencies.

David Wojnar of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States told House lawmakers that the 580 retail stores the state currently operates are spread too thin to properly serve customers.

“We think the Commonwealth is woefully under-served,” Wojnar said. “There is less than one store per ten thousand [people] and that’s well below the national average…so there is room to grow.”

Gene Barr of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry said he thinks it’s problematic that the state’s Liquor Control Board both sells and regulates alcohol at the same time.

“There seems to be an inherent conflict in that,” he said, adding that strict state control over hard liquor sales is “inherently anti-consumer.”

To take liquor sales private this time, supporters would need to get voters to approve the move – and lawmakers to say yes twice in a row.

The earliest that could happen is next year.