The ballot period whose outcome will determine whether Boots pharmacists are to be represented by the PDA Union (PDAU) formally began on Monday February 4, giving those eligible to vote five weeks to have their final say on this long-running issue.
Ballot papers are to be sent out to members of the bargaining unit of pharmacists and pre-registration pharmacists working at levels 5, 6 and 7 in Boots stores (roughly 7,000 individuals) on February 18 and must be returned by noon on March 11 (see 'Ballot rules' below).
Boots has said that if the PDAU is not recognised it will launch its own negotiation committee, which it claims would be “more democratic” than the PDAU, while the PDAU says the proposal “fits the company’s usual tactics” and argues Boots pharmacists would be “properly listened to” and “treated better” with independent union representation.
Boots UK opposes the PDAU’s campaign for recognition and says that if the PDAU is not recognised following the ballot it will set up its own Joint Negotiation Committee, which it claims would be “stronger, more democratic and more positive” than the PDAU, and would not be “diluted by external interest”.
The company says this committee would have representatives elected annually by pharmacists, who would in turn appoint an “external, independent chairperson”. It would have “direct access to senior leadership” and would be able to negotiate on pay, hours and holiday, as well as the company’s “entire pharmacy strategy”.
Boots UK retail and pharmacy operations director Andrew Caplan commented on the company’s alternative proposals: “We believe that having a direct relationship with our pharmacists is better for patients and our pharmacists. To be the first choice for pharmacy, our pharmacists must feel able to talk to us directly.
“This is what the Boots Joint Negotiation Committee would offer, if we are given the opportunity to launch it. Boots operates in a challenging and fast-paced industry and we want to keep moving quickly to make positive change for pharmacists and our patients.”
A Boots UK spokesperson told PM that the company was responding to a “call for change” from its employees and added that the representatives of the proposed JNC would be given time off to undertake leadership training paid for by the company.
This Boots-affiliated committee would not be the subject of a recognition ballot as the PDAU has been, PM understands.
Describing the proposal as an example of what it calls the company’s “charm offensive” ahead of the vote, the PDAU says the term ‘Joint Negotiation Committee’ should only be applied to an entity that is legally separate to a company.
Speaking to PM, PDAU national officer Paul Day said the proposed body was “another variation of an internal mechanism created by and controlled by the company,” comparing it to the Boots Pharmacists' Association which was de-recognised in a ballot last summer.
The PDAU claims that unlike independent unions, in-house committees are not legally entitled to appoint safety officers who can address concerns around mental health and physical safety, and cannot “be consulted on major business changes”.
Furthermore, the PDAU claims, the JNC representatives would not have the same legal protections as union representatives and the JNC would not offer the same “legally defined and well-established dispute resolution processes” as a union, adding that the proposed committee would not be regulated by the Trade Union Certification Officer.
Paul Day told PM that with the company launching a major cost-cutting initiative, an independent union offered employees more security: “Having an independent trade union recognised to speak on behalf of groups of employees at times of significant change is far better than not having that. We are an independent trade union and so where necessary can, and do, take legal action for our members who have been treated unlawfully.
“There are statutory obligations on employers to consult when an independent trade union is recognised… A recognised union would give pharmacists the right to negotiate improvements which are made in legally binding agreements, protections for union reps, a right for health and safety officers, and more.”
In a newsletter sent to the bargaining unit in the week before the ballot period began, the PDAU claimed that if it is recognised it will achieve greater fairness and transparency for Boots pharmacists in areas such as pay, performance appraisals, bonuses and work-life balance.
In order for the PDAU to be officially recognised, 40 per cent of all eligible pharmacists and pre-registration pharmacists working at levels 5, 6 and 7 in Boots stores must vote for this (or around 2,800 individuals) and no more than that must vote against.
Boots-employed union representatives would then be appointed by colleagues to negotiate on behalf of the bargaining unit on matters such as pay, hours and working conditions.
If the PDAU’s bid is not successful, there cannot be another vote on the matter for three years.