Walgreens pharmacists take low pay case to the public
Protesters outside a Walgreens store in Bolingbrook. | Photo courtesy of Laborers' International Union of North America

CHICAGO—What do you do when you—as a group of pharmacists—produce 74% of Walgreens’ revenue but see only a 2% wage increase in the last seven years and no new colleagues to take the load off your overworked shoulders?

The answer given by hundreds of Walgreen pharmacists in the Chicago area was a month of informational picketing in front of 46 individual pharmacies all over the metro area, culminating in a mass rally in front of corporate headquarters in suburban Deerfield, Ill.

The pharmacists and their union, a Laborers sector, and political allies all came to declare that a 2% raise in last seven years is far from enough. Inflation in that same time was a cumulative 25%. “We won’t leave until they pay us more,” one speaker said.

The contract between the pharmacists’ union, the National Pharmacists Association, a Laborers sector, and Walgreen’s expired last May 31. Since then, the company hasn’t budged in bargaining, and it refuses to address other issues—notably a staff shortage that leaves the 900 pharmacists overworked and underpaid.

Instead, speakers said, it’s trying to cut costs by not filling pharmacist vacancies and forcing customers at stores with pharmacies but no pharmacists to telemedicine, where a pharmacist sitting in front of a distant computer screen has to try to answer patients’ questions.

“We’ve been at Walgreen’s for more than 20 years,” one speaker explained. “And we are fed up.” Indeed that’s the hashtag of their campaign: #pheduppharmacists.

“People who were not essential were also not exploitable,” meaning the Walgreen’s bosses, said the Rev. Clete Kiley, the nationally noted labor priest and spiritual guide for the Laborers. “They came up with the idea to break your relationship with the community.”

“I’m a free, readily available source of medical information for my customers,” explained National Pharmacists Association/Laborers President Joseph Pignataro. “This individualized care is invaluable when they ask ‘Where can we go?’

“Personalized care leads to good service which leads to happy customers. But Walgreens wants to replace us with telepharmacy, replacing the social contract with virtual medicine.

“It’ll be a loss of personalized care. That’s what I came for. That’s my job.”

What the pharmacists want is more money and more help on the job, and less of the profits to go to bosses and shareholders. The ratio of the CEO’s pay to the pharmacists’ pay is now 407-1.

The understaffing problem has only worsened, speakers said, since Walgreens merged with the British pharmaceutical chain Boots. Finances, and financiers drove that deal, they explained. The result is that workers toil for long hours due to staff shortages, and patients and customers suffer.

When he started in 1990, the union president said, Walgreens “was a family-owned business” which treated its workers like family. Not anymore.

“If I want to take time off” for vacation “I can’t,” because there are no more overlapping hours for other pharmacists to fill in, he explained. “There’s less personalized care, too.”

“Rather than hire more pharmacy staff, Walgreens cut pharmacy hours and closed stores,” the union says. It also wants to remove pharmacists from stores “and replace them with remote pharmacists who are not required to be located or licensed in Illinois.

“Telepharmacists cannot provide in-person individualized patient care and only have patient contact via video link. The only guaranteed in-person staff are employees with as little one year of experience, who are not pharmacists,” the Laborers say.

“Plain and simple, the point of telepharmacy is to increase Walgreens’ profits by cutting the number of pharmacists while increasing the workload of the few remaining,” said Pignataro, a full-time pharmacist, before the rally.

“Recent decisions at other corporations have taught us that outsourcing, de-skilling and ignoring experts–putting profits over people–is not a sustainable business model.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.