PDA Union continues the high street battle with Boots over union recognition

Did you know there are a group of 7,000 UK health professionals in the UK whose employer has spent 8 years, and who knows how much money, preventing them from gaining an independent voice at work and preventing them from negotiating for their pay & conditions?

These workers are Pharmacists employed in stores owned by Boots and whatever you may think of the rest of Boots’ corporate governance this is a story about workers rights that is worth knowing. In fact, alongside this situation at Boots, this part of the health sector has quietly become a great success story for the trade union movement.

The union exclusively for pharmacists, the PDA Union, has only existed for 10 years, but has already become one of the 30 largest unions in the country with over 28,000 members including 2,500 of those working at Boots and the union is making history.

Last year, almost 20 years after the legal ability to do so came into force, pharmacists at Boots supported by PDA Union were the first workers to attempt to end an employer’s arrangement with a “sweetheart union” which blocked what workers wanted, and they didn’t just try, they did it.

The process was untested and the law required not just a majority but that 40% of those eligible to vote, known as the “bargaining unit”, to vote “Yes”.  The result was 87% of those who voted (2,826 pharmacists) voted Yes and that constituted 41% of the bargaining unit in favour so this passed all the legal tests and the blocking agreement was ended.  To emphasise what an achievement that is, if you measure the BREXIT referendum in similar percentages of those eligible to vote it was just 37% vs 35%, so getting over 40% to support something is no small achievement.

After the vote, the company’s management failed to make a voluntary agreement with the PDA Union and in February 2019 those 7,000 pharmacists will get to vote again, this time to secure recognition for their union. The PDA Union will then be able to negotiate matters relating to pay, hours and holiday, appoint safety representatives and begin to improve the working lives of pharmacists, so that they can concentrate on caring for their patients.

This is a story of standing up to huge corporate power because Boots is the largest and most well-known community pharmacy business in the UK and is hugely influential in the sector. The multi-billion pound global enterprise is a vertically integrated business profiting from both wholesale and retail sales of medicines, with much of that coming from the taxpayer via the NHS.

Boots directly employs well over 10% of all pharmacists in the country and has many more working occasionally as locums. The company has tried “everything” to stop their employed pharmacists from getting independent representation and that included the blocking agreement signed in secret with the “sweetheart union”, called BPA, at a time the company was simultaneously talking to PDA Union about statutory recognition.

The BPA actually signed an agreement with management committing to only “collective bargain” resources for their own officials and committing not to collective bargain for the employment terms of their members.  The court that oversees these process is the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) and they later said Boots “had been disingenuous as [it] had deliberately misled the Union [PDA Union] in order to buy time to conclude arrangements with the BPA recorded in the Agreement

BPA is on the certification officer’s list of trade unions, but it is not independent. BPA was refused a certificate of independence in 2013. Part of the certification officer’s decision said: “looking at the picture as a whole that there emerges, in my judgement, a clear image of a union that has over the years been drawn into a situation in which it is indeed liable to interference by Boots… tending towards domination or control.”.

There is clearly a case to review how such an arrangement could have blocked an independent trade union, but that is for a later time and undoubtedly a more trade union friendly government.  Right now the issue is if these pharmacists will finally secure an independent voice at work for their choice of trade union.

Ballot papers go out after 4 February and must be returned by 8 March in order to be counted. Anyone interested in supporting the PDA Union and their members can help by spreading the word about this historic trade union campaign.

The PDA Union was established in 2008, it is the only independent trade union in the UK which is exclusively for pharmacists.  It received a certificate of independence in 2010.  PDA Union is a member of Unions 21 and affiliated to the Employed Community Pharmacists in Europe (EPhEU) organisation.

Written by Paul Day, National Officer at PDA Union.

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