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Retail pharmacy workers told CNN their employers left them severely overworked and understaffed. They say these harsh working conditions make it difficult to fill prescriptions safely, which could endanger the health of their clients. Today, a formal organizing effort, supported by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) and pharmacy union activists, is underway.

The announcement comes after pharmacy labor rights advocates launched a series of walkouts at Walgreens and CVS stores to protest what they called unfair working conditions.

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

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

Organizers said their efforts would target employees at CVS and Walgreens pharmacies and would also extend to workers at all U.S. retail pharmacies.

“We want to find ways to help these pharmacists and pharmacy technicians bring about the change they want to see in their industry, especially in the retail giants where the problems are most acute,” said a senior manager of IAM Healthcare.

“When it comes to legal knowledge and navigating the technical process of applying for union recognition in preparation for an election, this is something we can offer assistance with,” they added. “There are so many pharmacy workplaces in the United States and so it will be a labor-intensive process. This is also something we are willing to help them with.

Walgreens and CVS workers staged three separate strikes across the country this fall to demand that the companies fix what employees say are harsh working conditions that make it difficult to fill prescriptions safely, which could endanger the health of their customers. These actions briefly closed a handful of pharmacies and slowed operations at several others.

But there is a difference between an informal group of workers who come together informally to protest a cause and a full-fledged union, which has legal protections, a large network of members willing to mobilize and knowledgeable support staff who can help with logistics. Rank-and-file organizers struggled to organize a large-scale strike without institutional support and failed to rally pharmacy workers on a significant level.

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

A Walgreens representative added that “we are engaged and listening to the concerns raised by some of our team members. We are committed to ensuring our entire pharmacy team has the support and resources necessary to continue providing the best care to our patients while caring for their own well-being.

CVS told CNN that executives were “focused on developing a sustainable and scalable action plan that can be implemented in markets where support may be needed so that we can continue to provide healthcare. high quality on which our patients depend.”

But the IAM, which has about 700,000 members across North America, called the walkouts a critical first step toward unionization.

“The walkouts were a very distinct call,” the IAM Healthcare official said. “We believe there are opportunities to take this movement to the next level, beyond walkouts. Actually building the infrastructure of an organization.

Dr. Shane Jerominski, an independent pharmacist who runs The Accidental Pharmacist account on Facebook and helped organize the first walkouts, told CNN they did not result in many store closures because employees did not benefit of the legal protection offered by union campaigns. “People feared retaliation and risked putting their jobs at risk,” he said.

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

Together, these accounts have more than 300,000 subscribers.

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

Jerominski says his current goal is to have 100,000 retail pharmacy workers fill out a form indicating they want to unionize. “I don’t want there to be any more walkouts. It has always been about patient safety and access to safe care. This is the next step. It gets organized and it forces (retail pharmacists) to implement changes.

The Pharmacists Guild released a mission statement Wednesday outlining three major requirements and goals: staffing and workload standards to ensure safe patient care, representation and collective bargaining for pharmacy professionals on workplaces across the country and legislative and regulatory measures to protect patients and advance standards. of professional practice.

“This is a long-term project,” said the head of IAM Healthcare. “We have heard the call, we have heard the demand from pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. It’s a challenge for them to follow up and take the next step. This effort begins immediately and will continue for years.

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

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

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

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

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

A number of other U.S. unions represent retail pharmacy workers.

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

Both unions have publicly supported previous walkouts.

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