Walgreens, R.Ph. union still wide apart on contract terms

July 25, 2005

About 20% of Chicago staff pharmacists at Walgreens have resigned from the National Pharmacists Association (NPhA) as talks between the union, Walgreens, and a federal mediator failed to produce an agreement. About 1,200 Walgreens union pharmacists in northern Illinois and northwest Indiana walked off their jobs at 10 PM on July 11

About 20% of Chicago staff pharmacists at Walgreens have resigned from the National Pharmacists Association (NPhA) as talks between the union, Walgreens, and a federal mediator failed to produce an agreement. About 1,200 Walgreens union pharmacists in northern Illinois and northwest Indiana walked off their jobs at 10 PM on July 11.

Chuck Sauer, executive director of NPhA, told Drug Topics, "There is an attempt by the company to intimidate a lot of folks to cross the picket line. They [Walgreens] are offering their last wage proposal retroactive to May 18 in order to seduce some of them to come over. Obviously I'd rather not see any breaking of ranks, but a lot of folks are being intimidated."

The union rejected Walgreens' final contract proposal because of concerns over patient safety, working conditions, and understaffing. "It's not about the money, because Walgreens finally came around and kicked in some bucks. They are two years overdue in doing so because we were behind the competition," said Sauer.

Ralph Vogel, president of the Guild for Professional Pharmacists, Woodland Hills, Calif., pointed out that without a union security clause, a union would lose members. "The company is trying to take away their union security, which basically would break the union. There are still 1,000 pharmacists out on strike. That's still a darn good strike as long as they stay out at least for a week or two. With any strike, you have to get it over with within a week or two. If you go any further than that, it's a loser for everybody."

Walgreens spokesman Michael Polzin declined to discuss the issue of the union security clause. "Publicly, union leaders talk about safety issues, but that is not what they are emphasizing at the bargaining table. Pay is always an issue and we have a very fair offer that keeps our pharmacies well staffed and pays our pharmacists well over $100,000 a year. Our pay package is a 20% raise over four years. Plus we have great benefits such as a stock-option plan and a profit-sharing plan. The profit-sharing plan matches over three dollars for every dollar that pharmacists contribute," said Polzin.

Another bone of contention for the union, according to Sauer, is the company's elimination of a staffing review committee. Arguing that pharmacists fill over 500 prescriptions a day, Sauer said the review committee gives pharmacists an opportunity to request and document that they need additional staffing.

In response, Polzin said the average number of prescriptions filled by pharmacists at the chain's stores is 280 a day. He added, "Our proposal does not eliminate the review committee, contrary to what the union has stated. Our proposal will make that committee more efficient. So rather than taking two to three months to get an answer back to the pharmacist, it will take only 10 to 20 working days."

The NPhA is also trying to negotiate for the following provisions: prorated part-time benefits for pharmacists who work 24 or more hours a week, time off on Martin Luther King's birthday, and a hard copy of the company's operations manual.

Meanwhile, at least one of Walgreens' competitors, Albertson's, didn't waste any time running full-page ads in the Chicago area to lure patients to its pharmacy counters. Walgreens is running print and radio ads of its own to let patients know that its pharmacies are still open.

The strike affects about 400 Walgreens stores. Pharmacy managers who work outside Illinois but who are licensed in the state have reportedly been called to work in the stores affected by the strike. "That may have an impact on stores in other states," said a source who preferred to remain anonymous.