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LifeLabs, BCGEU reach tentative agreement; job action averted

The BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU) says it’s reached a tentative three-year agreement with LifeLabs, ending job action that went into effect on Saturday.

More than 200 unionized employees of LifeLabs gathered for a rally Saturday outside the Burnaby Reference Lab on Gilmore Ave. The core dispute between the employer and the union had focused on wage disputes.

On Sunday, the BCGEU said in a press release that an agreement had been reached in the early morning hours.

The job action was limited to an overtime ban and a work-to-rule campaign—meaning workers performed their duties exactly as described in their job descriptions—at all 94 unionized LifeLabs locations.

“From the 98% strike vote in July to the difficult decision to action that vote this weekend, our LifeLab members have shown solidarity and a willingness to fight to get the deal they deserve,” said BCGEU president Stephanie Smith in a press release.

“That solidarity enabled the members of our bargaining committee to make the progress at the table we have now seen.”

Essential service levels

LifeLabs locations take on a large proportion of COVID testing in BC. In the week of October 10-17, for example, there were an average of 13,385 tests performed in BC every day.

Prior to job action beginning, Smith said the union had committed to essential service levels to ensure that essential work would done, regardless of job action.

But Smith said the workload during the pandemic was precisely why the union was so insistent on securing higher wages for its members.

“Like for everyone in healthcare, this pandemic has been incredibly difficult and challenging. The members who work for LifeLabs do exactly the same jobs as those workers in hospital labs, in the Health Science Professional Bargaining Association. The difference is that our members get, on average, 4.5% to 13.5% less in wages,” she said.

“They have no pension plan. This is an employer, in fact, that came to the table initially wanting to reduce sick time in the middle of a pandemic. Our members know their worth, they know the value that they play in BC healthcare, and we want to see an agreement that reflects that.”

She said the wage disparity was causing staffing issues even before the pandemic—but that COVID made the issue far worse.

The BCGEU had said if an agreement wasn’t reached by November 1, it would have escalated job action to involve picket lines at sites around the province.

“The strike committee and our members are being very strategic—they want to give the employer an opportunity to come back to the table, and put a proposal in front of our members that addresses the concerns that have been raised around wage disparity and benefits,” BCGEU president Stephanie Smith told the Beacon on Friday.

Members of the bargaining committee will take details of the new tentative agreement to the rest of the unionized LifeLabs employees today. Members will then vote on whether to accept the agreement.