PDAU: Pay issues high on our Boots agenda

Following a historic victory for the PDA Union in its eight-year campaign to bargain on behalf of Boots pharmacists, Pharmacy Magazine assistant editor Arthur Walsh caught up with PDAU national officer Paul Day. He reflected on a campaign he described as “hard work” yet “positive” and discussed the PDAU’s ambitions as it prepares to sit at the negotiating table.

Congratulations on the result. What’s the mood like in the office?

Well, we’re busy looking after the 90 per cent of our members who don’t work at Boots so we’re not really partying, but we’re very pleased with the result.

You never want to be arrogant, but if we’re honest we were in this unique position that nobody else has ever been in of knowing that 87 per cent of pharmacists voted for us last time [in the June 2018 ballot to de-recognise the Boots Pharmacists’ Association]. Based on that, it was a fair assumption from us that we would win this ballot, and of course the numbers are even better this time – and that’s with a smaller bargaining unit.

What has the ballot period been like?

It’s been hard work but it’s been quite positive for us. We’ve only been able to communicate with the bargaining unit within limited parameters but the feedback has been very encouraging.

And other pharmacists have taken the time to get in touch and say they were behind the campaign and were going to share our message because they felt it was so important, which has been quite affirming.

Another positive aspect has been all the messages of support from unions throughout the UK and pharmacy trade unions in Europe. The trade union movement is ultimately all on the same side.

Both sides seem to accuse the other of running a negative campaign. Is it a question of whom you choose to take at face value?

We’d be happy to share with you every single thing we’ve shared and let you make up your own mind. I think as a detached observer you would see we’ve talked about a positive thing and told pharmacists about what we offer.

We may have pointed out facts which the company are uncomfortable with, like their forced distribution of performance ratings, which means that 15 per cent of people in a role must get a ‘less than effective’ grading – that means a thousand pharmacists every year. Regardless of how well you and your colleagues do, you know that 15 per cent of you are going to be ‘underperforming’.

I think some people see that as negative, but that’s a fact. Us highlighting facts they don’t like is not us being negative, it’s constructive.

Boots and the PDAU are to agree their working relationship

What are the next steps?

In terms of the recognition process, we now have a period of time – five to six weeks – to agree with the company how we’re going to work together. If we can’t agree, the Central Arbitration Committee as overseer of that process can make a decision.

Presumably that’s not how either party wants it to go.

No. The CAC can decide, or there is also a fall-back statutory model – a ‘backstop’ if I can use the phrase – which, much like the Brexit backstop, nobody actually wants. It is quite administratively heavy, and I think it’s generally accepted that it is written in such a way that no employer and no union would really want it, in order to encourage people to come to a model that will work better.

We’re very encouraged that in this process Boots has made a number of positive commitments, such as saying that [managing director] Seb James could sit down with a committee of pharmacist representatives six times a year.

Now clearly, the model for this that the company suggested [the Boots Joint Negotiating Committee] was overwhelmingly rejected, but nevertheless if he has got the time to devote to improving employee relations and conditions then you would hope that he would do that in the model that pharmacists have selected.

We'll create structures to make sure we listen to pharmacists' views

You’ve said before that Boots pharmacists are overrepresented in your casework. Are there urgent issues that you’re looking to go in and address?

We will be creating structures to make sure that we are listening to pharmacists’ views on what is important. Big things for pharmacists in terms of negotiation include the impact of forced distribution because people think it’s unfair and doesn’t support teamwork.

Pay issues are also on the agenda. At the bottom end, anyone who’s paid less than the midpoint of the Boots salary scale is implicitly paid less than the market average salary for that job. At the other end, long-serving pharmacists sometimes feel they are being asked to do extra things while their pay is almost frozen.

We spoke last year when the de-recognition result came out and I recall you as being very keen to be cordial and conciliatory towards the company. There seems to have been a shift in the PDAU’s tone over the ensuing months and I wonder whether that relationship has been strained as the campaign has progressed?

What, that we’re less conciliatory?

Some have suggested that the latest announcement had more of a triumphalist tone to it.

We are still conciliatory, and that’s the whole thrust of [PDAU general secretary] John Murphy’s letter to Seb James – that we’d rather put all the past behind us. Certainly, as we started off saying, we have run a positive campaign – it hasn’t necessarily been positive the other way – and the result has been overwhelming.

The company put forward a model as an alternative to the PDA and it got half the votes that the BPA got last year, so the strength of feeling from pharmacists is even more pronounced than last year.

So you’re keen to have a good working relationship with Boots management?

Absolutely, we are always keen, it worries me a little if we appear not to be. That’s the absolute thrust of John’s letter and obviously as general secretary he sets a lot of the tone. We are saying, let’s put a line under previous positions and work positively for pharmacists, patients and the company.

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