Vincent Alban/Reuters
IAM Healthcare announced the launch of The Pharmacy Guild on Wednesday, a campaign to unionize and support retail pharmacy workers.
New York CNN  — 

Retail pharmacy workers have told CNN that their employers have left them severely overworked and understaffed. These harsh working conditions, they say, make it difficult to safely fill prescriptions, which could put the health of their customers at risk. Now a formal unionization effort, backed by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) and pharmacy labor activists, is underway.

The announcement comes after pharmacy labor advocates launched a series of walkouts at Walgreens and CVS stores in protest of what they called unjust labor conditions.

The worker empowerment project, dubbed the Pharmacy Guild, will officially launch on Wednesday morning, the group told CNN.

“This is more than a union organizing effort,” reads the Pharmacy Guild’s founding statement. “It is a call to take this powerful social movement of pharmacy professionals to the next level by developing the organizational infrastructure and institutional influence necessary to make real change.”

Organizers said their efforts will target employees at CVS and Walgreens pharmacies and also extend to workers at all US retail pharmacies.

“We want to find ways to help these pharmacists and pharmacy technicians to make the change that they want to see in their industry, specifically in the corporate retail giants where the problems are most acute,” said a senior official at IAM Healthcare.

“When it comes to the legal knowledge, and navigation of the technical process of filing for union recognition for an election, that’s something that we can offer help with,” they added. “There are so many pharmacy workplaces in the United States and so this will be a labor-intensive process. That’s also something we’re prepared to help them with.”

Walkouts to unionization

Workers at Walgreens and CVS staged three separate walkouts across the country this fall to demand the companies fix what employees say are harsh working conditions that make it difficult for them to safely fill prescriptions, which could put the health of their customers at risk. Those work actions closed a handful of pharmacies briefly and slowed business at several others.

But there is a difference between a loose group of workers informally joining together to protest a cause, and a full-fledged union, which has legal protections, a vast network of members ready to mobilize and a knowledgable support staff who can assist with logistics. The grassroots organizers had difficulty organizing the large-scale walkout without institutional support, and failed to rally pharmacy workers on a significant level.

At the time, Walgreens told CNN the impact had been “minimal” and that the company was focused on improving the workplace for pharmacy staff.

A representative from Walgreens added that “we are engaged and listening to the concerns raised by some of our team members. We are committed to ensuring that our entire pharmacy team has the support and resources necessary to continue to provide the best care to our patients while taking care of their own wellbeing.”

CVS told CNN that executives were “focused on developing a sustainable, scalable action plan that can be put in place in markets where support may be needed so we can continue delivering the high-quality care our patients depend on.”

But IAM, which has about 700,000 members across North America, characterized the walkouts as an essential first step towards unionization.

“The walkouts have been a very distinct call,” said the IAM Healthcare official. “We think that there are opportunities to take this movement to the next level, beyond walkouts. To actually build infrastructure for an organization.”

Dr. Shane Jerominski, an independent pharmacist who runs The Accidental Pharmacist account on Facebook and helped organize the initial walkouts, told CNN that they didn’t result in many store closures because employees didn’t have the legal protection that union campaigns offer. “People were worried about retaliation and putting their jobs on the line,” he said.

IAM Healthcare is partnering with Jerominski, alongside Dr. Bled Tanoe, a pharmacist who launched a campaign advocating for fair treatment of pharmacists on social media using the hashtag #PizzaIsNotWorking, and Dr. Maurice Shaw, a pharmacist who runs the popular RXComedy social media account that posts pharmacy-related memes and news stories, to launch the union drive.

Together those accounts have more than 300,000 followers.

‘Change is necessary’

“There is mass dissatisfaction with the state of the pharmacy right now,” Jerominski, who previously worked for Walgreens, told CNN. “Change is necessary,” he said. “If we don’t have some sort of national backing, some sort of means of organizing to cause regulatory change, then we will continue to have those problems in the industry.”

Jerominski says his current goal is to have 100,000 retail pharmacy workers fill out a form saying they’re interested in unionizing. “I don’t want there to be any more walkouts. This was always about patient safety and access to safe patient care. This is the next step. This is organizing and this is forcing [retail pharmacists] to enact change.”

The Pharmacy Guild issued a mission statement on Wednesday highlighting three major demands and goals: Staffing and workload standards to ensure safe patient care, representation and collective bargaining for pharmacy professionals in workplaces across the country and legislative and regulatory action to protect patients and to advance standards of professional practice.

“This is a long term project,” said the IAM Healthcare official. “We’ve heard the call, we’ve heard the demand from pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. This is a challenge to them to follow up and take the next step. This effort starts immediately and it will continue for years to come.”

In a statement to CNN, Walgreens spokesperson Fraser Engerman said that the company is “fully committed to ensuring the contributions of our pharmacists are acknowledged and rewarded, including competitive pay and benefits.”

Walgreens, he said, “respects the right of our people to choose to be represented by a union but we continue to believe the best way to accomplish meaningful results is through the direct relationship between our team members and their managers. And the vast majority of our team members agree.”

CVS spokesperson Amy Thibault told CNN that the company is making “targeted investments” to address their pharmacy teams’ concerns.

“Our goal is to develop a sustainable and scalable action plan to support both our pharmacists and our customers so we can continue delivering the high-quality care our patients depend on,” she said.

“We have productive relationships with unions who represent thousands of our colleagues across the country and respect our employees’ right to either unionize or refrain from doing so,” she added.

A number of other US unions represent retail pharmacy workers.

United Healthcare Workers East represents nearly 5,000 pharmacists and pharmacy techs in hospitals and retail pharmacies. The United Food and Commercial workers also represent retail pharmacy staff but do not share official membership numbers.

Both unions publicly supported the previous walkouts.