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PDA IN THE NEWS: “Niche trade unions buck trend of falling membership”

This article entitled 'Niche trade unions buck trend of falling membership' is written by Robert Wright and was published in today's issue of the Financial Times.

Wed 26th June 2019 The PDA

Niche trade unions buck trend of falling membership

Specialist organisations enjoy disproportionate success in attracting members

When Jaswinder Dhap began his career as a pharmacist a decade ago, he was pressed by pharmacy owners to dispense medicines during his mandatory break times. As the sole practitioner working at many of the shops, he worried that this could affect the safety of his customers.

But as a member of the Pharmacists’ Defence Association Union, a specialist trade union, Mr Dhap was able to get advice on the regulations governing dispensing from the union’s staff. With their backing, he was able to ensure the pharmacy owners respected the rules.

Mr Dhap said the PDA union had “a knack” for highlighting issues that were important to the profession. “You can tell that they’re essentially protecting the public interest by supporting the pharmacists,” he said.

The PDA union is one of a number of mostly specialist workers’ associations bucking the trend of falling union membership among private sector workers. Since its formation in 2008, membership has grown to 28,000 of England’s 55,000 pharmacists. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, it increased by 7.6 per cent.

Only 13.2 per cent of workers in private companies — where most pharmacists are employed — belonged to unions last year, down from 21.4 per cent in 1995. While union membership is rising for public sector workers, it is stagnant for those in the private sector, and many observers attribute the real-terms decline in pay levels in the UK since 2008 to the weakness of worker representation at British companies.

The PDA began as a mutual provider of indemnity insurance against negligence claims for pharmacists, according to Paul Day, the union’s national officer. But it added a trade union arm in 2008 after seeing that it could better represent members in many cases if it had trade union powers.

“Why I think we’re successful is that we’re a pharmacists’ organisation that was helping members and realised we could help them even more by becoming a trade union,”  Mr Day said.

The union has also benefited from the timing of its formation, which came just before new regulations in October 2009 that tightened the rules around pharmacists, leaving many, including Mr Dhap, concerned about their liability for mistakes in writing prescriptions.

It also attracted members because of pharmacists’ worries about the implications of ownership changes at Boots. The largest employer of pharmacists in the UK merged with Alliance Healthcare in 2007 and has since merged with Walgreens, the US pharmacy chain.

In March, the union won an eight-year legal battle to force Boots to allow PDA to represent its pharmacists, replacing a more docile staff association. Mr Day said the union had “filled a gap where pharmacists didn’t have an organised trade union”.

Becky Wright, executive director of Unions 21, a think-tank for trade unions, said other unions could learn from the quick decision-making of the PDA, which contrasts with the cumbersome bureaucracy of many more established organisations.

“They’re newer,” said Ms Wright of Unions 21. “They have a much clearer system for putting members at the heart of their work.”

She said membership statistics suggested that small, niche unions such as PDA were enjoying disproportionate success in attracting new members. Among the successes was the Artists’ Union England, founded in 2013 to represent visual artists. Earlier this year, it became the newest union affiliated to the Trades Union Congress.

Paul Nowak, deputy general secretary of the TUC, the UK’s biggest union grouping, said other unions were also successfully exploiting worker discontent in the private sector to grow and safeguard workers’ interests.

He pointed to the success of the GMB, one of the TUC’s biggest members, in organising workers at Hermes, the courier company. McDonald’s, the restaurant chain, last year offered all its UK staff guaranteed minimum hours after Unison, another big union, organised a series of strikes over “zero-hours” contracts, which offer no guaranteed minimum amount of work.

But he said the victories did not guarantee increased membership. “The organisational gains that they make in one area may be wiped out by a factory closure or loss of a contract somewhere else,” said Mr Nowak.

He added that unions also frequently invested significant time and effort into seeking recognition at companies only to be stymied by Britain’s highly restrictive trade union laws.

Mr Day said many would-be union members would have doubts about whether the big, multi-sector trade unions that dominate the labour movement in the UK could truly stand up for their profession.

“If the leadership of some of the major unions are dealing with 100 or 1,000 different professions, how much time, if they get time with a government minister, are they talking about your profession?” said Mr Day.

Ms Wright also believes smaller organisations have an advantage in attracting new members. “The more specialised you are, the easier it is to craft a message and the easier it is for people to see why it is they need to join,” she said.


This article was sourced from the Financial Times website.

The Pharmacists' Defence Association is a company limited by guarantee. Registered in England; Company No 4746656.

The Pharmacists' Defence Association is an appointed representative in respect of insurance mediation activities only of
The Pharmacy Insurance Agency Limited which is registered in England and Wales under company number 2591975
and is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (Register No 307063)

The PDA Union is recognised by the Certification Officer as an independent trade union.

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