Dispensing workplace justice: the PDA union is the new kid on the block with ambitions and aspirations

Paul Flynn records the success of a young union for pharmacists.

This year the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) celebrates its 125th anniversary: 125 years of Scotland’s workers standing united to support one another to achieve improvements in their lives and livelihoods. This has seen more sectors being organised and new unions created, bringing more workers into the movement.

In 2021, the PDA Union affiliated to the STUC and many may not have heard of us because we have only existed for 13 years. We emerged from the Pharmacists’ Defence Association, itself a not-for-profit organisation created for pharmacists by pharmacists in 2003, to provide an independent voice for employed and locum pharmacists, free of employer control.

The PDA Union is the only independent union exclusively for pharmacists and has already grown to around 2,500 members in Scotland, and over 32,000 across the UK, making it the largest pharmacist membership body and 22nd largest union. We are the 6th largest union exclusively for health professionals and we continue to grow in numbers and influence by developing the capacity of our reps and active members.

Pharmacists are most visible to the public when working in a community pharmacy, but PDA Union members and reps are also found in hospitals, GP practices, health boards, prisons, academia and elsewhere. Pharmacy is a Masters’ degree qualification and the profession is c.65% female and significantly BAME. We do not allow pharmacy owners into membership as we believe there is a potential conflict if a union represents both employer and employee. As part of the PDA’s focus on equality, diversity and inclusion there are four active member networks (National Association of Women Pharmacists, the LGBT+ pharmacists, BAME pharmacists and ‘Ability’ the network for pharmacists with disabilities).

In some European countries, pharmacies may only be owned by pharmacists. In Britain, they are often owned by retailers and the community pharmacy sector is dominated by a few very large employers that have multiple branches and lots of influence. The very largest employers are UK-wide and headquartered in England, including global pharmacy chains and the supermarkets. They have a UK-wide business model, but should take account of funding levels and job specifications in Scotland which are significantly greater. English funding levels are significantly lower because of spending cuts in Westminster.

Both the largest pharmacy chains, Boots and LloydsPharmacy, are for sale. McKesson, the US-based owners of Lloyds, recently announced a proposed sale to pan-European investment group, Aurelius UK. Boots is yet to announce a purchaser and currently remains part of the US-based, Walgreens Boots Alliance.

Community pharmacies have a lot in common with GP practices. Both were excluded when the NHS was created and so are not owned by the NHS, although they display the NHS logo and are contracted to provide NHS services. Both may generate other income from private services too and both have patients seeking help with health issues. However, many often think of GP practices as within the health service and community pharmacies as outside.

Herein lies the roots of many workplace issues for community pharmacists. They are the most accessible point of contact in the health system, where even those are not registered with a doctor can see a health professional in the heart of their community and without an appointment. However, they are often employed and managed by retailers with sales targets to achieve and shareholder dividends to generate. As technology drives many high street retailers online, there is a critical division emerging between those who want pharmacies to become even more of a retail transaction and those who recognise they are set in a clinical health setting. The patient interaction undertaken by pharmacists is critical to positive outcomes for patients as they do much more than provide medicines, they provide advice, administer vaccinations, undertake reviews and consultations and increasingly, pharmacists are qualifying as independent prescribers too.

The PDA Union forced union recognition on Boots after an eight-year campaign ended in 2019 and pay is now negotiated. This is where some may have heard of the PDA, as their members are the only trade unionists to ever apply for a ballot to remove a sweetheart union. The PDA had to then win two postal ballots, the first to remove the management backed sweetheart union and the second to subsequently secure recognition; each postal vote involved more than 6,000 workers spread across 2,500 workplaces. We won both ballots. LloydsPharmacy subsequently avoided being beaten by the union when it voluntarily agreed to collective bargaining. Now that the two largest employers are negotiating pay, the PDA want increased rates to spread across the sector, something which is desperately needed because pharmacist pay has been reduced in real terms for more than a decade.

The Government meets regularly with representatives of community pharmacy employers and agree funding for community pharmacy to deliver more NHS services. However, the voice of the pharmacist workforce has not been listened to nearly as much in Holyrood, so we are taking steps to see the voice of employers and employees balanced, in line with the Fair Work Convention.

Throughout the pandemic our members across the health system have been in the front line, from community pharmacies remaining open through the strictest lockdowns to members working on Covid wards. Our other hot topics include stopping violence in pharmacies, ensuring patient safety and despite there being record numbers of pharmacists registered, some employers still claim there is a workforce shortage when in fact the fundamental issue is that many pharmacists will not accept the poor working conditions and environment they offer. As a new STUC affiliate, the PDA union is proud to add the voice of thousands of pharmacists to our contemporary workers in Scotland.

Paul Flynn is the recently appointed PDA Union National Officer for Scotland (paul.flynn@pda-union.org)