Thursday, May 8, 2008

"PLCB Bashing"

That was the subject line of the following e-mail I just received from a PLCB employee.

The PLCB has provided me with one of the few decent paying jobs in the area for 8 years now. I love my job, I take it very seriously. As far as your comment about the stores not carrying expensive scotch... Store 3516 in Clarks Summit where I work carries Johnny Walker Blue Label and several other scotch whiskies well over the $130.00 mark you stated. Some that are $300.00 I believe.

I'm sick of people like you badmouthing the PLCB. I don't like a lot of their policies either, but think of the families like mine who are very thankful to have a decent paying job so they can put food on the table. Our area is a dead zone for jobs, with more and more companies looking to move work overseas or hire illegal Mexicans at $4.00 per hour. Those are the problems we should be focused on as Pennsylvanians and Americans, not saving a few dollars on alcohol.

My response:

First, the information on high-priced whiskies at State Stores is from the PLCB's website. The Macallan 18 was the highest-priced single malt Scotch whisky carried as a regular item; I missed the higher-priced Johnnie Walker Blue in the blends. My mistake; I apologize for that, and I've corrected it in the post with thanks to you -- unnamed, as I'm not clear what your name is. But according to that site, the Blue is the highest-priced regularly stocked Scotch whisky, at $199.99; there are no other regularly stocked Scotch whiskies between that price and the Macallan 18's.

As for your job, and "bashing" and "badmouthing," and illegal Mexicans... I did say in a comment on the blog, "The hardest part about writing this, getting people to see the problems with the PLCB, is thinking about the effect it could have on people's livelihoods if I were somehow successful." It was something I thought about a lot before starting the blog. I realize that's not much comfort to you, but it is an issue for me. I'll be addressing it in the future.

Are you concerned that you couldn't find a job in a private liquor store if the PLCB system was put out to pasture, or open one yourself? I assume you've got experience. One of the possibilities for solving the problem of putting so many people out of work is using the proceeds from selling the inventory and other assets of the PLCB to offer low/no interest loans to current employees to set themselves up in business. Not as safe a job as your current one, perhaps, but you wouldn't be saddled with the PLCB policies you say you don't like, either. But the PLCB is not a jobs program, and it shouldn't be.

I'm not "bashing" it or "badmouthing" the PLCB, simple-mindedly ranting and raving. I'm presenting reasons why our current system is not ideal, or even a good idea. Take out the PLCB employees and the anti-alcohol forces, and I doubt you could summon 10% support for the PLCB among Pennsylvania citizens.

Is it as important as immigration? Probably not. Is immigration as important as health-care? As important as the environment? As crime? As illegal drug control? As our future energy supply? I don't know. But just because one issue is more important than another doesn't mean the less-important one shouldn't be discussed.

The issue of the jobs currently provided by the PLCB is the thorniest in all of this, and of much more importance than any trumped up "alcohol chaos" that may result from privatization. As this e-mail makes very clear, these are real people, with families to feed. Finding a solution to that issue is the most important part of the puzzle that is the abolition of the PLCB. Ideas are welcome; what do you think of the one I floated above?

There's just one thing I'd like to know. The fellow says he's sick of "people like you badmouthing the PLCB." Who are the "people like you"? What sets them apart? And how do I meet more of them and get their e-mail addresses?


Kevin said...

I may sound simple-minded with this argument against the the jobs reasoning but:
If the employees feel that there jobs will no longer be necessary if the PLCB stores are privatized; wouldn't that mean that some of their jobs are not necessary now. That would mean that even though they have this incredible ability to be efficient with their buying power, etc. they choose not to be. So all Pennsylvanians are forced to be ripped off because of poor management. But we have to save their jobs.


Lew Bryson said...

I'm not sure that's the case, Kevin. First, I wouldn't be in favor of simply privatizing the existing stores. Part of the problem is that the whole state of Pennsylvania has about as many liquor stores as a medium-sized city. So if we did abolish the State Store system, there would be more stores, and more jobs. However, the cashiers would almost certainly be making less than they do at the State Stores.

But I don't think it's fair to say to the clerks, the system that hired you sucks, so we're cutting you loose without a backwards glance, ta-ta. Finding an equitable solution is necessary.

Brad said...

Maybe it's a heartless tack to take, but it becomes much more difficult to think about how to solve big, real issues like this PLCB matter when we get too worked up over how reform would impact a very small minority. The truth is the PLCB system impacts (and does so negatively, as you illustrate) many, many more people than it employs. The utilitarian would say, "Serve the greater good" -- fix the problem and let the chips fall where they may. Perhaps keeping the PLCB would serve some people's interests; ditching it would serve more.


Lew Bryson said...

Well, Brad, if you're going to get into "the greater good"... The PLCB does serve us with a greater than utilitarian selection of booze, vs. kicking thousands of people out of work. I'm not saying forget abolishing the PLCB because of that -- far from it -- but utilitarianism is one hell of a harsh way to run things. It's not the fault of the clerks that they took a relatively good-paying job with the PLCB instead of with Wal-Mart.

Unknown said...

I left the plcb over a year ago after six years working as a clerk and Specialty wine buyer in Phila. I applied for the job when I saw the improvements Newman was trying to bring to the plcb. Mostly it was a good job, the pay and benefits were good and as a wine-lover I had an opportunity to order wines and deal with wine customers, both retail and restaurants who appreciated the attention.
There are many talented and knowledgeable people now working in the plcb who would have no difficulty landing jobs in the private sector, should private wine or liquor stores ever become a reality.
At every wine dinner, meeting or event I ever attended while employed with the plcb it was pretty common to hear those same knowledgeable people generally agree the system was needing change and since Newman left I feel sorry for those stuck having to deal with what it's become.

Anonymous said...

it is great to get cjrice's comments, as a former PLCB employee.

I have no doubt that there are some honest, hardworking, costumer service oriented folks working for the PLCB, I just haven't encountered them in 3 years going to the Center City stores.

Brad said...

> The PLCB does serve us with a greater than utilitarian selection of booze, vs. kicking thousands of people out of work.

I'm not sure those two would have to be mutually exclusive. A private system would likely employ as many people or more (particularly if, as has been noted here, more stores open and more people buy their booze in-state), and it would supply the market with the selection it demands.

Now, I agree with you that utilitarianism is not the most compassionate route to take -- for that reason and others I fancy myself no utilitarian. I only mean to point out that sometimes the solution to a problem may not be best for some people, but it might be best for even more.


Lew Bryson said...

I absolutely believe the two are not mutually exclusive, and that State Store employees with gumption will get jobs in the private sector...probably, almost certainly, for less money. But I don't see why they can't open their own stores...and make nice money at it. The best solution to this whole situation is going to be complex. Doesn't mean it's a bad one, but it's not going to be simple.

Anonymous said...

How's this:

Sell the PLCB, with its existing stores, to a single entity (like BevMo?) while allowing other stores to open.

The company would immediately be able to leverage the massive purchasing power of the PLCB, plus their distribution system and other assets, plus they'd have a near-monopoly in many areas until competitors had a chance to get started.

In exchange, exact some guarantees from the new owner, who:

1. Must recognize the union and assume current pension and other benefits obligations; and

2. Can't close any existing stores for a set period (3-5 years?).

This gives current employees a safety net and a more or less guaranteed 3-5 years of continued employment and protections beyond that time, as well as making the transition from public to private quicker and easier and adding a large one-time payment to the state treasury.