A small number of employees and supporters picket outside the headquarters of the Walgreens pharmacy chain during a three-day pharmacist strike in Deerfield, Illinois, November 1, 2023.
Vincent Alban | Reuters
Organizers of a recent walkout by retail pharmacy workers are helping launch a national campaign Wednesday to unionize those employees, a potential step toward large-scale unionization of thousands of pharmacists and technicians across the United States for the first time.
A new partnership between organizers and IAM Healthcare – a union representing thousands of healthcare professionals – aims to help pharmacy staff unionize to address what many employees are calling unsafe staffing levels and burdens. increasing labor demands across the industry, including at major pharmacy chains such as Walgreens And CVS.
The organizing campaign, dubbed “The Pharmacy Guild,” also calls for legislative and regulatory changes to establish higher standards of practice in pharmacies to protect patients.
Notably, the vast majority of pharmacists and technicians at Walgreens and CVS have no union representation, while pharmacy staff at a handful of grocery retailers like Kroger do, according to Shane Jerominski, a walkout organizer who is helping to launching this effort through its social media pharmacy advocacy platform, The Accidental Pharmacist.
The push to unionize staff not currently represented by a union only adds to what has been one of the most active years for the American labor movement in recent history.
A CVS spokesperson said Wednesday that the company is engaging in an “ongoing two-way dialogue” with pharmacists to directly address their concerns and is making some changes in response to recent feedback.
CVS maintains productive relationships with the unions that represent its employees and “respects the right of our employees to unionize or refrain from doing so,” the spokesperson added.
A Walgreens spokesperson previously told CNBC that the company has taken several steps at its pharmacies “to ensure our teams can focus on providing optimal patient care.” Walgreens and CVS also said last week that their pharmacy staff walkouts last week had minimal impact on their pharmacy operations.
Jerominski said the new partnership specifically allows pharmacy workers interested in unionizing to fill out a public form on a new website, which will ask for their name, employer, pharmacy location, contact information and the message they wishes to transmit. IAM Healthcare and the walkout organizers will then launch organizing campaigns in certain districts or areas with strong support for unionizing.
The Pharmacy Guild hopes 100,000 pharmacists and technicians will fill out the form, Jerominski said. He also predicted that 90% of pharmacists working for Walgreens and CVS will be unionized in five years.
Jerominksi called the push for unionization a “logical next step” after last week’s walkout and earlier work stoppages by some U.S. Walgreens drugstore workers and Kansas City-area CVS workers .
Organizers don’t have a clear estimate of how many people participated in last week’s walkout, but a poll they launched on the social media page for the effort showed that at least 200 employees from Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid participated.
“Everyone asks me what’s next? I think the days of walkouts are over,” Jerominski, who is also a former Walgreens employee, told CNBC. “I think that to make changes from now on, we need to organize. Unionization is not going to change everything, but it will help us ensure better working conditions for pharmacists.”
The Pharmacy Guild’s founding statement also describes this effort as a call to take “this powerful social movement of pharmacy professionals to the next level by developing the organizational infrastructure and institutional influence needed to effect real change.”
How is the new organizing effort different?
The Pharmacists Guild doesn’t follow the standard way of organizing workers, but Jerominski thinks that’s why it will work.
Typically, a pharmacy that wants to unionize contacts a union, meets with a local union organizer and begins asking employees or neighboring stores if they are interested in the effort. Jerominski said one of the problems with this approach is that “those efforts can end up being escalated to corporate management, who can come in and take the whole thing down from an entire district’s perspective.”
“There are many things companies can do to combat unionization,” Jerominski said.
Meanwhile, Jerominski said the Pharmacy Guild could allow multiple organizing campaigns to launch at the same time, which could make it more difficult to intervene.
He also called the new effort a simpler approach to organizing.
“If you want it, you just fill it out,” Jerominski said. “We’ll do the rest. We’ll go from there, with the support of a national union.”
In addition to Jerominski’s account, two other social media platforms called RxComedy and #PizzaIsNotWorking are helping launch this effort with IAM Healthcare. Both platforms have long advocated for safer working conditions for pharmacy staff, and the founder and other members of #PizzaIsNotWorking helped organize the recent walkouts.
The three platforms together have 300,000 subscribers, according to a press release announcing The Pharmacy Guild.
The accounts will use their reach to call attention to the Pharmacy Guild and provide updates on the progress of the organizing effort, Jerominski said.
“The power of a truly centralized audience and the ability to push that at any time — that’s a big part of our role,” Jerominski said.