The beer lockout that led to long lineups in 1985

A labour dispute in Ontario had beer drinkers queuing at a small Hamilton brewer and left a Toronto tavern owner in trouble.

Workers were off the job at Ontario's bigger breweries, but Hamilton's Amstel was still in business

Desperation sets in for beer drinkers during 1985 labour dispute

39 years ago
Duration 2:36
The lineups are four hours long for Hamilton's Amstel beer, whose workers are on the job in Ontario -- unlike the big three.

They were words no thirsty Canadian wanted to hear. 

"The whole country could run dry of beer within two months," said George McLean, host of CBC's The National, on March 10, 1985.

A national union representing brewery workers across Canada was threatening to go on strike in support of their  compatriots in Ontario who had been locked out by management for almost two weeks.

That meant there was no beer forthcoming from the province's three brewing giants — Molson, Labatt, and Carling O'Keefe. And as the CBC's Dan Bjarnason reported, things were getting desperate.

'Beer-guzzler's desert'

A man holds a picket sign outside a brewery
Workers at the three big breweries -- Molson, Labatt, and Carling O'Keefe -- had been off the job in a labour dispute for almost two weeks. (The National/CBC Archives)

"The province is becoming a beer-guzzler's desert," said Bjarnason, as a single picketer with a sign was seen walking in front of a Molson plant.

Two shots of Brewer's Retail beer stores showed there was no brew available for retail at the Ontario monopoly.

"Particularly hard-hit are the taverns," said the reporter, as the camera showed the gritty exterior and empty interior of the Holiday Tavern at Queen and Bathurst streets in Toronto.

Customers were "staying home in droves" from the tavern, where only bottled American beer was available for consumption. There was no draft beer on tap at all.

Layoffs at the tavern

Middle-aged woman inside a tavern
Lisa Bajor, owner of the Holiday Tavern, was unable to keep people visiting with the offer of American beer only. (The National/CBC Archives)

"I did lay off six dancers last week, and I have to lay off another six this week," said Holiday Tavern owner Lisa Bajor, who had "plowed her life savings" into the establishment.

She figured she could last another week, said Bjarrnason. Without beer flowing, neither were the earnings Bajor needed for a viable business. 

"I can't pay them, and in a business you must have a cash flow."

Reporting by CBC at the time also described Bajor taking action by "camping" outside the office of Ontario Premier Frank Miller in protest of interprovincial trade barriers that were preventing her from importing beer from other provinces. 

According to the Toronto Star, the building housing the "aged sip-and-strip joint" was sold less than 10 days after this report aired. 

Alternatives for the thirsty

Man with mustache inside home brewing store
John Arthurs, owner of a store called Wine-Art, that sold beer-making kits, said business had been "absolutely frantic" in the past week. (The National/CBC Archives)

Beer drinkers were veritably pouring into "fringe industries" to deal with the shortage of suds. 

"Home-making beer kits, for example, are instant hits," said Bjarnason, visiting a shop called Wine-Art where sales had doubled.

People who weren't prepared to become basement brewers had another option.

"For a handful of small, independent brewers, the dispute has been a goldmine," said Bjarmason. "At the Amstel brewery in Hamilton, the thirsty start lining up at dawn."

Hundreds of beer-drinkers waited in line "by mid-morning." Their average wait time? Four hours.

Amstel to the rescue

Boy outdoors holds box full of wrapped sandwiches interviewed by a reporter
A boy selling sandwiches was among the enterprising Hamiltonians stepping forward to offer services for beer-drinkers waiting in line at the Amstel brewery. (The National/CBC Archives)

"The beer is bought by the case, or the truckload," said the reporter, as the camera showed a long line of people who wouldn't look out of place on the set of Bob and Doug McKenzie's Great White North.

The line was so long that a number of enterprising locals living near the brewery had found ways to benefit from the sudden crowds.

Parking spots and rolling shopping carts were available for rent. And there were even options for the hungry.

"Ham and cheese, cheese and ham," said a boy bearing a box of sandwiches.   

According to the Globe and Mail, beer was back in full production on Mar. 26, 1985, after the union local at Labatt's plant in London, Ont., agreed to accept a contract offer.

The six-brewery shutdown had started a month earlier.

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