Boots’ battle with the Pharmacists’ Defence Association Union is a turning point for collective bargaining, writes Claire Ward
The attitude to trade unions and industrial relations has changed significantly over the last 25 years, with employers such as Ryanair choosing to recognise and work constructively with unions.
This makes it exceptionally disappointing that a British company has fought tooth and nail to deny some of its employees the right to be represented by an independent trade union.
Boots is the largest multiple community pharmacy represented on our high streets with over 2000 pharmacies across the United Kingdom, providing retail, beauty and pharmacy services to millions every day. It is also part of the Walgreens Boots Alliance, which has a presence in the global market.
In addition to running these successful national and international operations, Boots has also spent the last seven years trying to prevent its pharmacists from organising in an independent union, with the case going as far as the high court. In the next month, all of this could change.
The Pharmacists’ Defence Association Union is an independent trade union that provides representation for pharmacists and locums in collaboration with the Pharmacists’ Defence Association which provides the indemnity insurance for these healthcare professionals. Despite having over 2000 members in Boots (and a total of 27,000 members across the UK) the PDAU has been denied collective bargaining rights. This is because Boots signed an agreement with the Boots Pharmacists’ Association (BPA) in 2012, the result of which was to block the PDAU from recognition.
The BPA is on the certification officer’s list of trade unions but it is not independent. In fact, it has been refused a certificate of independence because it has been deemed ‘liable to interference by Boots….tending towards domination and control’. Hardly a good example for an organisation which seeks to represent the best interests of its members. The existing agreement between Boots and the BPA specifically rules out the right to collective bargaining on the employment terms of its members. Instead it is able to negotiate the facilities that the BPA has access to. This ‘sweetheart deal’ is not serving the best interests of pharmacists.
The PDAU has continued to fight on behalf of its members. Last year, with the support of the PDAU, six pharmacists applied to the Central Arbitration Committee to have the agreement between Boots and the BPA derecognised. The legislation dealing with derecognition of a trade union has never been tested, despite being on the statute books for 17 years. This week ballot papers will be distributed by post to the homes of just over 7000 pharmacists working for Boots as the legislation requires.
There must not only be a majority vote for change, but also that those voting for change must comprise at least 40 per cent of those entitled to vote. This is a very high threshold, especially when the nature of the sector means that voting will be by post, not in person. Put into context, the recent general secretary of Unite was elected on a turnout of 12 per cent of the membership, despite significant resources and national media interest in the election.
So the magic number is 2,780. We need 2,780 pharmacists (and a majority) to vote for change to pass the threshold and end the sweetheart deal. Ballot papers will be distributed from the 10 May and must be returned by noon on the 23 May – a short window, despite our attempts to have it extended.
At the PDAU we will donate £1 to charity for every vote cast, whatever the outcome. We hope that this incentive to vote will encourage people to take part in this important trade union case.
This might seem a relatively small trade union battle, but it has big implications – not simply because it is testing the derecognition legislation for the first time. When a global multi-billion pound business wants to block an independent union from bargaining on behalf of its members, it has wide-reaching implications for employment rights. So we look to the broader trade union movement and beyond to help raise the profile of this ballot and encourage pharmacists at Boots to have their say.
Claire Ward is a former member of parliament for Watford and director of public affairs at the Pharmacists’ Defence Association. She tweets @clairemward123
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