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Claire Ward is the Director of Public Affairs for the Pharmacists Defence Association. She is the former Chair of Pharmacy Voice, representing community pharmacy trade associations, and was Labour MP for Watford from 1997 to 2010.

Two months ago, ResPublica called for the Conservative Party to deliver a ‘New Bargain’  between employers, unions and government to ensure that our corporate sector is equipped for the modern age, and for the task of increasing productivity and prosperity for the UK. The report builds on the statements from the Prime Minister about the value of engaging workers in the process of business decision making.

Engaging with trade unions and recognising their value is not quite the message I would have expected from the the Conservatives – nor indeed the supportive messages that come from the Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists Association, and from Robert Halfon, who writes regularly on this site about the subject, in particular.

Many Conservatives tell me that they recognise that things need to change. They know, too, that trade unions inevitably have the best interests of their members at heart, and that those interests are best served by working with firms to promote a happy, productive and protected workforce and successful and profitable businesses.

So what message is the Conservative Government itself giving to businesses on the need to engage with trade unions? The silence is deafening. A few comments in support of workers on company boards is not going to deliver a new deal on industrial relations. Perhaps the ongoing relationship between the most high-profile trade unions and the Labour Party makes this uncomfortable territory for the Conservative Party.

If that is the case, then the current dispute between the Pharmacists Defence Association Union and Boots is ideal territory for the Conservatives to venture.

Boots is the largest multiple community pharmacy represented on our high streets, with over 2000 pharmacies across the UK, providing retail, beauty and pharmacy services to millions every day. It is part of Walgreens Boots Alliance and, in addition to pharmacies in the UK, it has wholesaling and drug manufacturing on a global level.

In all of these activities it receives billions of pounds of taxpayers money. Yet it have spent the last seven years trying to prevent their pharmacists from having access to an independent union, with proceedings going as far as the High Court. But next week, all this could all change.

The Pharmacists Defence Association Union (PDAU) provides representation for pharmacists in hospital, primary and community pharmacy, together with indemnity insurance for these healthcare professionals. It’s an independent trade union, affiliated neither to the Labour Party nor the TUC.

Despite having over 2000 members in Boots (out of 27,000 members across the UK), the PDAU has been denied collective bargaining rights. In 2012, Boots signed an agreement with the smaller Boots Pharmacists Association (BPA), the result of which has been to block the PDAU from recognition. It’s a move that has been widely criticised by employment relations experts.

The BPA is on the Certification Officer’s list of trade unions, but it is not independent. Indeed, it has been refused a certificate of independence because it has been deemed ‘liable to interference by Boots….tending towards domination and control’. Hardly a good example for an organisation which seeks to represent the best interests of its members. The agreement which exists between Boots and the BPA specifically rules out the right to collective bargaining on the employment terms of its members. Instead, it is able to negotiate the facilities that the BPA has access to. In short, this is what most trade unionists would describe as a ‘sweetheart deal’.

The PDAU has continued to fight on behalf of its members. Last year, six pharmacists, with the support of the PDAU, applied to the Central Arbitration Committee to have the agreement between Boots and the BPA derecognised – the only route to statutory recognition after years of being denied a voluntary agreement.

The legislation dealing with derecognition of a trade union has never been tested, despite being on the statute books for 17 years.The 2001 legislation in which it is contained was an amendment to the trade union legislation introduced by the previous Conservative Government in 1992.

Last week, ballot papers were distributed by post to the homes of just over 7000 pharmacists working for Boots.  The legislation requires that there must not only be a majority vote for change, but also that those voting for change must comprise at least 40 per cent of those entitled to vote. That’s a very high threshold, especially when the nature of the sector means that voting will be by post, not based at the workplace. There is no use of electronic voting. For those of us with any experience in elections, this represents a very tall order.

So the magic number is 2780. We need 2780 pharmacists to vote in order to pass the threshold and deliver a majority in order to end the sweetheart deal. Ballot papers were distributed from the 10 May and must be returned by the 23rd May, less than two weeks’ turnaround – another challenge in the process. Despite our attempt to have this process extended, in the face of opposition from the BPA and Boots, we have already encountered pharmacists disenfranchised because they will be away on holiday for two weeks.

If the Conservative Party is serious about engaging with trade unions, protecting workers’ rights and encouraging a grown up and modern approach to industrial relations, it should be speaking out on cases like this. It should encourage Boots and other companies to end their sweetheart deals and allow workers genuine rights to collective bargaining with independent trade unions. Let me be clear: we want Boots to be a success for all its stakeholders and we want a positive relationship with them. Only by building these relationships in the workplace, and protecting the workforce on which the companies rely, can we start to improve Britain’s productivity and champion corporate reform.

This may be a test case, but it represents the tip of the iceberg in British companies that are thwarting the engagement of employees and their trade unions. When a global multi-billion pound business throws money at preventing its employees from having an independent trade union voice, it should be the concern of all political parties to speak out in support of employees and the type of corporate behaviour that we want to see in Britain.

12 comments for: Claire Ward: If the Conservatives really want to work with trade unions, they will back one in its struggle with Boots

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