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Unions experimenting with legal avenues to gain recognition

Gaining union recognition is a hard process and to do it in a multi-site employer with thousands of employees requires considerable resources to undertake.  What happens then, when a union goes through that process only to be shut out by an employer recognising a non-independent union?

This was the situation that the PDA Union found itself in when in 2011 it sought to gain union recognition in Boots where the union has over 2000 members.  Boots is still viewed by many as the face of UK pharmacy and often set the standards and practices that are followed across community pharmacy.  As an employer, the company is the biggest employer outside of the NHS for pharmacists.  Set the working standard there and the industry follows.  Union recognition there would be key to the union, which was created in 2008 and already has 26k members.  

The non-independent union

After refusing the voluntary route, Boots commenced the statutory procedure through the CAC.  As the discussions between the parties were going on, the company’s senior management met in secret with the Boots Pharmacists Association (BPA).  The BPA had existed in Boots for 38 years  but as the union got close to recognition, Boots signed an agreement with them, blocking the PDA Union’s application.  

Despite the Certification Officer refusing a certificate of independence for the BPA, the outcome of an appeal against a judicial review of the case confirmed that the Boots/BPA agreement was lawful and the only option was for employees in the bargaining group to apply to the CAC to have the agreement terminated meaning the non-independent BPA would lose their recognition.

Challenging the non-independent union

The only way for the agreement to be successfully challenged was for workers who were in the bargaining unit to begin that process.  This is a potentially high risk action for any individual to consider as they would have to put their “heads above the parapet” in a fairly atomised workplace.  

However, in July 2017, an application was submitted from six individual pharmacists from across the UK (who made clear the PDA Union had been instructed to speak on their behalf).  A campaign website went live and a campaign newsletter was delivered to every branch of Boots and to the home of every Boots employed PDA Union member.

The process

The applicants, employer and BPA were invited to submit evidence for a CAC panel to review.  During this process, the management and BPA were unable to prove the scope of their agreement although they claimed it included even very those very senior management who were qualified pharmacists.  This attempted to stretch the number of workers allegedly in the bargaining unit to over 7,000.  Whereas, the union was able to evidence 1,000 pledges from Boots employed pharmacists collected through the campaign website to support the termination of the agreement with the BPA and in favour of PDA Union recognition. The number of pledges is in excess of required 10% of the Bargaining Unit, even if the inflated numbers were accepted.  

After due consideration the CAC panel reached a decision in mid-November to accept the application but have not accepted the inflated bargaining unit scope jointly suggested by the BPA and Boots. This case is the first time an application for derecognition has been decided by the CAC, 17 years after the law enabling the process was introduced

The ballot for union recognition will now be undertaken and the union is preparing for that exercise.