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County LifeLabs workers rally in support of strike for better wages

'LifeLabs can easily resolve this,' OPSEU negotiator says during rally in Barrie

Several LifeLabs employees, who are members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) Local 389, were protesting in Barrie on Saturday against what they say are unfair pay and benefits packages.

The group assembled in the parking lot of the LifeLabs building on Wellington Street near the city’s downtown and held picket signs and banners in support of their cause.

There are labs in Orillia, Barrie, Wasaga Beach, Base Borden and other areas in Simcoe County.

Renee Aiken Kearsley, president of Local 389 for the Simcoe County workers of LifeLabs, told BarrieToday they are “rallying here with our workers for the unfair bargaining, and we want to make sure that the employer comes to the table with fair deals.”

According to Aiken Kearsley, they are the first LifeLabs employees to unionize.

“And since that day, and since the infancy, the employer has been fighting against us since Day 1,” she said.

“We are like the little train that could — we just march along. We changed the industry. We started with one, and now we have 10 bargaining units in Ontario.”

She claims their employer fights against them for fair wages and benefits.

“What they do is typically copy whatever we table, and give it to the non-unionized. They’re union busters, and we are here to tell them we are no longer going to take it,” she said.

“We’re standing strong, and we’re going to make sure the 98 per cent female workforce get living wages so that they can support their families. This employer has actually told us if we don’t like the benefits, we should use our husbands’.”

The organizers of the rally expected more than 100 people to take part, with some travelling from Toronto and as far away as Sault Ste. Marie. LifeLab couriers were also planning to be on hand from Toronto “to help us in solidarity,” Aiken Kearsley said.

Greg McVeigh, the negotiator for the Simcoe County unit for OPSEU, was on hand at the event and said the negotiating process has so far been “very slow and deliberately onerous,” adding, “all our members are asking for is to be paid the same as other LifeLab workers across the province.”

He noted the starting rate in Simcoe County is $18.51, while the starting rate just out of sight of Barrie, such as Innisfil, is $24 an hour, “and that’s non-union.”

“They’ve done this over the last two years — they went ahead and paid the non-union more, specifically to break the union,” McVeigh added.

“They gave a pandemic bonus of $1,750 to all the other workers, but not to these workers, just to them to try and break this union. (It’s) no different than the Unifor people sitting outside of Honda (in Alliston), and Honda trying to match and exceed to keep Unifor out. This is exactly the same.”

Unifor is a general trade union representing a wide range of industries in Canada.

The LifeLabs employees in the county voted in favour of strike action last month, with a strike deadline of May 2.

McVeigh said there is a May 1 mediation date set, facilitated by the Ministry of Labour, in Barrie.

“We’re here to get a deal that day, and to be clear, our members do not want to go on strike; they are going on strike because they have to. LifeLabs can easily resolve this,” he added.

“If Charles Brown (CEO of LifeLabs) is reading this, I’d like him to hear that he’s prepared to put these women all out on strike in Simcoe County without pay, other than strike pay, and disrupt services to all people who require this vital health care in Simcoe County, just to bust the union.

“They provide vital health-care services as prescribed by doctors. Every day (there is a strike), those services won’t exist.”

McVeigh said LifeLabs is owned by the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS), which is a pension fund.

“It’s the pension plan for all municipal workers, so, basically, they’re owned by unionized workers … So, what is their problem with unions?” he asked.

Aiken Kearsley anticipates disruption for many if the strike occurs.

“There will be labour disputes, there will be lines, and patients that we care about are going to be affected,” she said.

“LifeLabs typically wants us to call our patients clients, and we don’t like that. We care for these patients, we care for our communities, and I’m a patient, too, and I want to make sure that I’m getting the proper service.”

She claimed LifeLabs is short-staffing them, closing labs, and cutting hours, “and we just can’t have this in these communities.”

Kevin Lamb

About the Author: Kevin Lamb

Kevin Lamb picked up a camera in 2000 and by 2005 was freelancing for the Barrie Examiner newspaper until its closure in 2017. He is an award-winning photojournalist, with his work having been seen in many news outlets across Canada and internationally
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