There is an answer to 12-hour shifts, inadequate support, 20-minute lunch hours, and no bathroom breaks. Ask the United Steelworkers of America.
"Our main concern is that we try to make sure there is a sufficiently trained staff in the pharmacy so that a pharmacist can do his/her job professionally and completely, including the counseling of all patients."
Now see if you can match it with the organization whose president said it:
a) the American Pharmacists Association
b) the National Association of Chain Drug Stores
c) a local of the United Steelworkers of America
I may not be the only one. Thomas Hanson, president of NPHA-USW Local 1969, which represents Walgreens pharmacists in the greater Chicago area, went on to say, "Non-union pharmacists are always calling or e-mailing our office and wanting information about us and how to organize."
As odd a pairing as it may seem, the USW also represents pharmacists who work for Medco facilities in Florida, Nevada, Texas, and Pennsylvania, as well as for King Soopers and Safeway stores in Colorado. In California, the United Food and Commercial Workers represents pharmacists in close to 700 stores, primarily Rite Aid and CVS locations. (Full disclosure: I've been a pharmacist member of the UFCW since 2006.)
In the eyes of Hanson, the pairing has been successful. "The USW has given us both financial resources and their expertise, especially during our last contract negotiations in 2009. With their strong input, we recently obtained a successful contract that runs until May 2013."
Benefits of a union contact
Asked about the benefits of a union contract for employee pharmacists, he said, "There is a grievance procedure in place to make sure that employee pharmacists are treated fairly. We have guaranteed break and lunch periods. We have a set job description for pharmacists in the contract. Before this, pharmacists were given tasks like cleaning the bathrooms and stocking non-pharmaceutical merchandise on the shelves."
The organizing of healthcare professionals is not unprecedented. Nurses have a long history of unionization, with the California Nurses Association being instrumental in the passage of a landmark RN-to-patient ratio law in 1999, a step that improved working conditions for nurses as well as care for their patients - and a step that never would have happened if average working nurses had not been willing to organize and stand up for themselves.
I can't think of any similar success to which our profession can point, and I also can't think of a national pharmacy organization that would give me a quote like the one I used at the beginning of this article. I don't think those two things are unrelated. Next time you're at work battling hunger pains, think about the success those nurses have had in advocating their interests. Think about the work that Mr. Hanson and people like him are doing for his members, and consider that maybe, just maybe, steelworkers may hold the key to the future of our profession.
David Stanley is a practicing community pharmacist in California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org