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LifeLabs unionized staff and medical laboratory workers strike outside the LifeLabs 750 West Broadway location in Vancouver on Jan. 21, 2013. Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A week after announcing the proposed purchase of its main B.C. competitor, the province's largest private medical lab company finds many of its patient service centres behind picket lines for the first time.

"Obviously, they have enough money to buy BC Biomedical, so maybe they've got enough money to see that their own workers are earning a fair wage, as well," said union president Darryl Walker, after members of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union struck 40 LifeLabs locations across the province on Monday.

The union said most strikebound sites would be picketed for two days, some for a single day, while others still operating would be targeted for similar rotating strike action over the next two weeks.

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The picket lines sent patients scurrying to alternative sites to have doctor-ordered blood samples and other specimens collected for testing.

LifeLabs Medical Laboratory Services and B.C. Biomedical Laboratories, which is not unionized, provide about two-thirds of all routine, non-hospital lab testing in the province.

"This is causing a huge disruption to patients," said LifeLabs CEO Sue Paish. "We are taking every step we possibly can to minimize that disruption."

Ms. Paish said the company has posted on its website a list of strike-free centres nearest those facilities that are closed, including publicly run labs and some operated by Biomedical.

LifeLabs operates 80 patient service labs in B.C., used by roughly 11,000 patients a day, while Biomedical has 45 such operations. LifeLabs' main testing laboratory, which analyzes collected samples, will remain open during union job action, under an essential-services agreement between the two sides.

Mr. Walker said LifeLabs wage rates are about 3 per cent below those paid at Biomedical, and the 700 unionized employees want to catch up.

The union began job action after spurning the company's last offer on Saturday, which provided a 4-per-cent wage increase over three years. "It's zero in the first year, and that's unacceptable if we're going to make up the [wage] difference," Mr. Walker said.

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The union wants something "considerably north" of that, in the area of three successive annual wage hikes to two per cent, he added, noting that employees are also under a lot of workplace pressure. "Nobody likes to miss a paycheque, but having said that, sometimes it feels good to do something."

LifeLabs communications director Mitchell Toker agreed that the company's wages are slightly less than those paid by Biomedical, but LifeLabs benefits are better. "So, the two companies are roughly equivalent in total compensation."

Ms. Paish said the company made every effort to reach an agreement with the union on Saturday. Even after talks broke off, she said she phoned Mr. Walker to suggest the parties resume bargaining. "Not only did they not respond to that, they chose to picket."

Meanwhile, Ms. Paish rejected concerns, some expressed by Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid, that LifeLabs' pending purchase of Biomedical could lead to less competition, higher prices and decreased service.

The proposed transaction must first clear a number of federal and provincial regulatory hurdles. If it does, LifeLabs' activities and fees will remain controlled by the health ministry and the Medical Services Commission, Ms. Paish said. "I don't think it will affect competition, at all."

But Ms. MacDiarmid reiterated her concerns Monday, pledging the province will intervene as an "interested party on behalf of the taxpayers and patients of the province," when the matter comes before the Federal Competition Bureau.

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