A small number of workers and supporters protest outside the Walgreens pharmacy chain headquarters during a three-day strike by pharmacists in Deerfield, Illinois, November 1, 2023.
Vincent Alban | Reuters
Organizers of a recent retail pharmacy staff strike are helping to start one national push to organize those workers on Wednesday, a possible step toward broad unionization of thousands of pharmacists and technicians across the U.S. for the first time.
A new collaboration between the organizers and IAM Healthcare – a union representing thousands of healthcare professionals – aims to help pharmacy staff unionize to address what many workers call unsafe staffing levels and increasing workloads across the industry, including at major pharmacy chains such as Walgreens and CVS.
The push for unionization, 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 from Walgreens and CVS are not unionized, while pharmacy staff from a handful of grocery retailers such as Kroger you do, according to Shane Jerominski, a retreat organizer who helps launch the effort through the pharmacy’s social media advocacy platform; The Random Apothecary.
The push to organize staff not currently represented by a union only adds to what has been one of the most active years for the US labor movement in recent history.
A CVS spokeswoman said Wednesday that the company is engaged in an “ongoing two-way dialogue” with pharmacists to directly address their concerns and is making some changes in response to the recent feedback.
CVS has productive relationships with unions that represent its employees and “respects the right of our employees to either unionize or not,” the spokesman added.
A Walgreens spokesperson told CNBC that the company has taken several steps at its pharmacies “to ensure that our teams can focus on providing optimal patient care.” Both Walgreens and CVS also said last week that the walkout of their pharmacy staff last week had a minimal effect for the operation of their pharmacy.
Jerominski said the new partnership specifically allows pharmacy staff 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 want to pass. IAM Healthcare and the strike organizers will then launch unionization campaigns in certain regions or areas with high support for the organization.
The Pharmacy Guild hopes to get 100,000 pharmacists and technicians to fill out the form, Jerominski said. He also predicted that 90% of pharmacists working for Walgreens and CVS will be unionized within five years.
Jerominksi called the unionization push the “next logical step” after last week’s walkout and previous walkouts by some Walgreens U.S. pharmacy staff and Kansas City-area CVS employees.
Organizers don’t have a clear estimate of how many people participated in the walkout last week, but a poll they posted on the effort’s social media page showed at least 200 workers at Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid.
“Everybody was asking me, what’s next? I think the time for exits is over,” Jerominski, who is also a former Walgreens employee, told CNBC. “I think to bring about change from this point, we have to organize. Unionization isn’t going to change everything, but it will help us secure better working conditions for pharmacists.”
The Pharmaceutical Society’s founding statement also describes the 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 necessary to effect real change.”
The Pharmacy Union doesn’t follow the standard method of organizing workers — but Jerominski believes that’s why it will work.
Typically, a pharmacy location that wants to unionize will reach out to a union, meet with a local organizer, and begin asking employees or neighboring stores if they are interested in the effort. Jerominski said one of the issues with this approach is that “these efforts can end up in corporate management, which can come in and suppress the whole thing from an entire district.”
“There are many things companies can do to fight unionization,” Jerominski said.
Meanwhile, Jerominski said The Pharmacy Guild could allow multiple unionization campaigns to begin at the same time, which could make it harder to intervene.
He called the new effort an easier approach to unionization.
“If you want, all you have to do is fill it out,” Jerominski said. “We’ll do the rest. We’ll take it from there, with the support of a national association.”
In addition to Jerominski’s account, two other social media platforms called RxComedy and #PizzaIsNotWorking are helping launch the 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 combined have 300,000 followers, according to a press release from The Pharmacy Guild.
The bills will use their reach to bring attention to The Pharmacy Guild and provide updates on the progress of the unionization effort, Jerominski said.
“The power of a really focused audience and being able to constantly push it — that’s a big part of our roles,” Jerominski said.