January 2013 Article in IP

As you can see from the bio above in a previous life I was chairperson of the CEC, the Community Employee Committee of the IPU now called the EPC. This was in the late 80’s and I think that it would safe to say that the CEC wasn’t the most active part of the union then. For many being an employee was merely a half way house until they owned and operated their own pharmacy. Indeed I would go so far as to say that there were many who did not consider you to be a proper pharmacist unless you owned a pharmacy. Hospital pharmacists were just about tolerated but as most hospitals were in state ownership at that stage they were represented by Civil Service trade unions. Most pharmacies were independents and the only chain of note was HCR which was later to form the backbone of the Boots chain when they set up in the Republic. There was the start of some pharmacist owned chains but these would have been very much in the minority. This was partly due the stated union policy, backed by AGM, that pharmacy ownership should be on the basis of one pharmacy, one pharmacist, one contract. On the employee side it was agreed that members of the union would only work for proprietor members of the union in any new opening. Employees working for HCR were allowed as their employment pre-dated this policy. At this time I saw membership of the IPU very much in the same way that most workers would have seen trade union membership. Somebody to negotiate on my behalf and to support me in any dispute. I had very little desire to own my own pharmacy then and could see myself making a good living as an employee pharmacist for the foreseeable future. Most employees had very little need of a union due to a number of factors. Firstly there was a shortage of pharmacists. The pharmacy degree had gone from three years to four so for one year, 1982 there was no new pharmacists entering the register. As well as this a decision was taken to discontinue the Qualified Assistants course. Or rather the decision was made for us as a result of our newly acquired membership of the EEC. For those of our younger readers that was what the EU was called in those days. Also there was only 50 places a year in TCD so this was the most that could qualify in any year. Then there was the regulation stating that any new pharmacy could only be covered by a pharmacist who had qualified in Ireland. So all in all employees were doing very well for ourselves.
I felt at the time that while there was not much need for a union for employees at this stage I could foresee a time when there would be a lot more employees and that they would need somebody to represent them. So I decided to help keep the Employee section active and relevant for when it was going to be needed. And I think that that time has now come. There is no longer a shortage of pharmacists, there are no requirement for new pharmacies to be covered by Irish qualified pharmacists and the growth of chains has been little short of explosive. There has been tremendous downward pressure on salaries. While some of this is just a result of the current economic situation and the laws of supply and demand I feel that it does not auger well for employees.
When and not if employee pharmacists come into conflict with employers who are part of a large chain they will need backup from an equally well resourced organisation. Already stories have begun to come out of employee pharmacists being pressurised to link sell. If the amount of the link selling is not up to what the employers deems acceptable then the pharmacist faces a reprimand. This despite the pharmacist having a professional obligation to do and recommend what is best for the patient even though this may not be in the best interest of the employer. I find it hard to believe that the superintendent and supervising pharmacists for these chains would stand over these practices but where they do the employee needs somebody to back them up. It has not yet reached a level similar to the US where long shifts with little or no proper breaks are becoming the norm. Imagine how you might feel if you were to start work in a busy pharmacy at 9AM and to be still dispensing without a proper break at 11PM. Most nights I am unable to operate the TV remote control by 11PM never mind dispense a complicated prescription. I think that the PSI should step up to the mark now and issue one of their infamous directives stating that having pharmacists work under these conditions represents a danger to the public and will not be tolerated. One piece of advice I would have for employees is to document everything. If a manager, be they a pharmacist or otherwise, directs you or puts you under pressure to do something which you consider unprofessional or improper object to it at the time if possible then make a note if it and date it. If appropriate pass a copy to your supervising pharmacist or your employers HR department but also keep a copy for yourself. You never know at some stage these may form the basis of a case in the Employment Appeals Tribunal. I know of one case, admittedly not in Ireland where a female employee pharmacist complained to her employer’s HR department of remarks made by a manager which could be construed as sexual harassment. Before her shift was over she witnessed the same manager being frog marched out of the pharmacy accompanied by security. It is in cases like these that the employee needs to know that the IPU will be there to back them up even if it is just moral support and advice.
And if you feel intimidated when dealing with large multi-nationals it is worth remembering Camille Desmoulins maxim, oft quoted by James Connolly, “The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise!”

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