A small number of employees and supporters picket outside the headquarters of drugstore chain Walgreens during a three-day walkout by pharmacists in Deerfield, Illinois, November 1, 2023.

Vincent Alban | Reuters

The organizers of a recent retail pharmacy staff walkout are helping to launch a national push to organize those employees on Wednesday, a potential step to wide-scale unionization of thousands of pharmacists and technicians across the U.S. for the first time.

A new partnership between the organizers and IAM Healthcare – a union representing thousands of health-care professionals – aims to help pharmacy staff unionize to address what many employees call unsafe staffing levels and increasing workloads throughout the industry, including at major drugstore chains such as Walgreens and CVS

The push to unionize, dubbed “The Pharmacy Guild,” also calls for legislative and regulatory change to establish higher standards of practice in pharmacies to protect patients. 

Notably, the vast majority of pharmacists and technicians from Walgreens and CVS have no union representation, while pharmacy staff from a handful of grocery retailers such as Kroger do, according to Shane Jerominski, a walkout organizer who is helping to launch the effort through his pharmacy advocacy platform on social media, The Accidental Pharmacist. 

The push to organize staff who aren’t currently represented by a union only adds to what has been one of the most active years for the U.S. labor movement in recent history.

A spokesperson for CVS said Wednesday that the company is engaging in a “continuous two-way dialogue” with pharmacists to directly address their concerns, and is making some changes in response to recent feedback.

CVS has productive relationships with unions who represent its employees and “respect our employees’ right to either unionize or refrain from doing so,” the spokesperson added.

A spokesperson for Walgreens previously told CNBC that the company has taken several steps in its pharmacies “to ensure that our teams can concentrate 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 impact on their pharmacy operations. 

Jerominski said the new partnership specifically allows pharmacy staff who are 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 message they want to pass along. IAM Healthcare and the walkout organizers will then launch unionization campaigns in certain districts or areas with high support for organizing.

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 in five years.

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Jerominksi called the push for unionization the “next logical step” after the walkout last week, and earlier work stoppages by some Walgreens pharmacy staff across the U.S. and CVS employees from the Kansas City area.

Organizers don’t have a clear estimate of how many people participated in the walkout last week, but a poll they launched on the social media page for the effort showed that at least 200 employees across Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid participated.

“Everyone has been asking me, what’s next? I think that the time for walkouts is done,” Jerominski, who is also a former Walgreens employee, told CNBC. “I think that in order to effect change from this point, we have to organize. Unionization is not going to change everything, but it’s going to help us secure better working conditions for pharmacists.”

The Pharmacy Guild’s founding statement also describes the effort as a call to take “this powerful social movement of pharmacy professionals to the next level through developing organizational infrastructure and institutional influence necessary to make real change.” 

How is the new unionization effort different? 

The Pharmacy Guild does not follow the standard method of organizing workers — but Jerominski believes that’s why it will work. 

Typically, a pharmacy location that wants to unionize would reach out to a union, meet with a local union organizer and start asking employees or neighboring stores if they’re interested in the effort. Jerominski said one of the issues with that approach is that “those efforts can end up getting out to corporate management, which can come in and suppress the whole thing from an entire district standpoint.” 

“There’s a lot of things companies can do to combat unionization,” Jerominski said.

Meanwhile, Jerominski said The Pharmacy Guild could allow several unionization campaigns to launch at the same time, which could make it harder to intervene. 

He also called the new effort an easier approach to unionizing. 

“If you want to, all you have to do is fill it out,” Jerominski said. “We’ll do the rest. We’ll take it from there, with the backing from a national union.”

In addition to Jerominski’s account, two other social media platforms called RxComedy and #PizzaIsNotWorking are helping to 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 to organize the recent walkouts. 

The three platforms together have 300,000 followers, according to a release announcing The Pharmacy Guild. 

The accounts 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 centralized audience and being able to push this all the time – that’s a big part of what our roles are,” Jerominski said.

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