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The rise and fall of Pharmacy Trade Unions


Did you know that the membership of the Pharmacist Defence Association (PDA) has almost doubled since 2010?


To be accurate in 2010 the PDA had 14,516 members and in 2018 this grew to 28,211 members.


Trade Unions in the UK are required to publish their membership numbers so I thought I’d delve a little bit.


Regardless of your political perspective, I think this growth is significant and perhaps a hint at how pharmacists in the employment market are feeling and therefore behaving. It is all the more remarkable when you consider the fact that there has been a steady decline in UK Trade Union membership since the late 1970s. Trade Union membership at this time was driven largely due to the fact that so many people were employed in industries like coal mining and manufacturing many of which have subsequently declined.


It is all the more surprising that some niche Trade Unions, for example, the PDA are bucking that trend and are actively growing their membership.


Now it will probably need a much cleverer person than me to analyse this growth properly and draw conclusions but I thought I’d have a go and start by looking at some statistics. And of course, in the interests of fairness, I will look at the membership progression of all the pharmacy Trade Unions.




The PDA Union in recent years has carved out a reputation for being very politically active, at times combative, but also in touch with what pharmacists want and need. Critically they seem to understand what pharmacists are worried about and make clear moves to address these fears and support their members.


Pharmacists I speak to tell me that the PDA Union evoke the feeling that they stand up for the interests specifically of pharmacists. The PDA Union have pharmacists in community, primary care, hospitals, health boards, prisons and anywhere else that pharmacists work. As mentioned above since 2010 they have almost doubled their membership to over 28,000. I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that this is a remarkable achievement for any organisation.


Having just secured their first major recognition agreement at Boots, the PDA Union seem to be continuing with their positive journey, broadening their activity as well as increasing their scale.


Call me cynical but an organisation that seems to put themselves in the line of fire for their members will always do well.



Boots Pharmacists Association (BPA)


The only other trade union exclusively for pharmacists in the UK is the BPA. Their fortunes have been different from that of the PDA because official figures show that their membership has dropped in recent years. The BPA, which only has members from Boots does not have certification to prove it isn’t under the control of the employer. A “Certificate of independence” was refused when it sought one in 2013.


I must admit that unfortunately, I have had cause to avail of the services of the BPA and to their credit the people that represented me did so successfully. I was marked as a ‘not performing’ pharmacist which was thankfully overturned. I felt at the time that the fact that the members of the BPA who represented me were senior managers in the company was an advantage because they understood the policies and procedures really well. And to their credit, they helped exonerate me.


However, to this day I do find it odd that senior managers in an employment case like that could sit on both sides of the table. My, perhaps naive, assumption is that some element of independence would be helpful.


This question of independence was raised in the recent BPA/Boots ballot. 87% of pharmacists voting in this ballot wanted the BPA/Boots agreement terminated, which is what then happened by order of the government body that oversaw the ballot.


However, the BPA membership numbers were already in steady but relatively slow decline for some time. Last year the BPA’s membership went down by 7.6% to just 1,146.



Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists


For completeness, I should also mention the Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists. Although the Guild doesn’t publish their membership numbers, they are a small section within the general union UNITE which is the second largest trade union in the UK.


Unite has over 1.3 million members across multiple professions and industrial sectors, less than its peak membership of 1.43 million in 2012, but still a huge organisation. The Guild organises in hospitals, primary care and other healthcare institutions for both the NHS and commercial healthcare providers, so I wouldn’t expect them to have any members in community pharmacy.

Technicians and other members of the team


There is no Trade Union expressly for Pharmacy Technicians or other members of the team. But if these members of the community pharmacy team are in any Trade Union at all, it is most likely to be members of USDAW, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers union. USDAW is another giant Trade Union with around 430,000 members across the UK, and just like UNITE, details of how many of those work in pharmacy are not published.


USDAW’s overall membership has stayed around 430,000 for the last ten years which is actually quite amazing because the turnover of retail staff means they have to recruit around 80-90,000 new members each year just to maintain their current numbers. USDAW is recognised to speak for employees at a number of the supermarket multiples, but at Boots, they are currently only recognised by the company for the distribution workers.


Should you join a Trade Union?


Well, unfortunately, I can’t answer that for you but what I would say is that I was a member of the BPA when I worked for Boots and now I am a member of the PDA. I think the PDA has made great progress in terms of how they represent the interests of pharmacists and I have availed of their services a number of times for advice since working in general practice and also being a self-employed locum pharmacist.


How the PDA position themselves in pharmacy politics is interesting to me and the proactive approach clearly resonates with members.


I do wonder if increased levels of litigious behaviour in the market and more complex roles for pharmacists in the UK also contributes to the growth in PDA membership.


With cuts to pharmacy funding making business more difficult for contractors and more talk of store closures, it may be time for everyone in community pharmacy to consider if they too should find out more about joining a Trade Union.


PIP have invited the BPA and the Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists to appear on the PIP podcast to discuss the issues raised here. The PDA has appeared on a number of occasions previously.

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