Coronavirus: APEX union defends lab worker strike, calls for immediate settlement

The union representing striking laboratory workers has reiterated that Friday's action will not interrupt testing for the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

APEX's senior advocate David Munro also hit back at concerns over the scheduling of the planned strike, after Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield called out the union's "poor timing" during a press conference on Monday.

"The date has been in place since before Christmas, we've had rolling strikes since October and the collective agreement expired in September," Munro explained to The AM Show on Tuesday morning.

"COVID testing will not be interrupted, at all, as a result of the Friday strike. There will be other scientists at the labs to test for COVID that will be available on this day."

District Health Board (DHB) medical laboratory workers and NZ Blood Service employees are striking in support of achieving a fair offer to settle their multi-employer collective agreement. The APEX union claims the employers' latest offer is discriminatory and locks staff into "inferior salaries".

The strike will cover two of the three laboratories currently testing for COVID-19 nationwide. These are two DHB labs - LabPLUS in Auckland and Canterbury Health Laboratories in Christchurch. The third, ESR, is not covered by APEX.

"This date was put in the calendar if we still hadn't settled by this time," Munro said.

"These guys [in the DHBs] are the unseen, unsung heroes in the health system... it [takes] a four-year degree and a lot of knowledge, pressure and imagination.

"These guys are discovering new bugs... and they earn $10,000 to $15,000 less than a registered nurse per year. It's like the tap's been turned off... we want the same as the other scientists on the bench that are covered by a different collective agreement."

Dr Bloomfield suggested that the strike was irresponsible during Monday's media stand-up, calling the action "disappointing" amid the coronavirus-fuelled panic. He also claimed the union was using COVID-19 as "leverage" for its cause.

"I'm disappointed they are using this situation to get leverage around an industrial matter that has been ongoing since last July... I don't think now is the time," he said.

But Munro argues that now is not the time for disruption in laboratories.

"It's not a good time for disruption in labs. Everyone should be pulling together, we've got a national crisis on [the cards] and we want a collective agreement settled," he hit back.

"These guys don't want to be on strike."

Five-hundred APEX union members will be involved in Friday's scheduled strike.

Dr Bloomfield said a "fairly robust discussion" was had with APEX national secretary Dr Deborah Powell.

"I told Dr Powell - and we've known each other for a number of years - that I just thought it was poor timing and that didn't mean we didn't want to resolve the industrial dispute, of course we do," Dr Bloomfield said on Monday.

He also assured that despite the "poor timing", laboratory testing for COVID-19 would not be impacted by Friday's strike. 

Munro emphasised that the ongoing partial strike action, set to run until May, is posing more problems.

"The ongoing partial strikes have been one of the things really putting the pressure on and they continue into May," he said.

"We need this settled, because COVID-19 is going to go well past May."