The Intersection Of Retail And Healthcare: Pharmacists Walk Out As Unions Circle

by | Oct 12, 2023 | Healthcare, Healthcare, Industry, Labor Relations Ink, Strikes, UFCW, Union Organizing, Unions

Anyone who has worked retail has felt the brunt of disappointed customers who take out their frustrations on workers. That unfortunate feeling is amplified when retail crosses over into healthcare, and unruly customers coupled with high turnover rates can compound existing pressure. 

Welcome to the world of pharmacists and pharmacy techs, who are newly fielding an unprecedented number of immunizations atop already piled-up prescriptions. Pharmacists also advise patients, juggle drive-thru and cashier duties, and communicate uncomfortable insurance information to patients. It’s a lot to handle.

This presents a unique set of challenges for chain retail pharmacies, which have been shuttering stores and cutting back on labor costs over the last few years due to falling profits. The combination does not bode well in a field where a pharmacy mistake can severely jeopardize patient safety. 

As such, some Walgreens and CVS pharmacists began walking out this month in scattered stores across the U.S. with technicians in tow. Last week, this began in CVS stores in Kansas City. This week, Walgreens pharmacy staffers launched a loosely coordinated three-day walkout in stores scattered around the nation. 

When we say “loosely,” we mean it. 

This is actually a difficult movement to size up because there is no union mouthpiece like the UAW’s Shawn Fain shouting into a mic. Individual activist workers also claim to be reluctant to go on record. Could this all be part of a secret union strategy? Perhaps, and time will tell. Yet pharmacy workers have aired grievances on social media forums like Reddit, where the walkouts are referred to as  “Operation Spotlight” and “Pharmageddon.”

Meanwhile, a Walgreens representative described the current fallout as “minimal” – 500 or so out of 9,000 total U.S. Walgreens locations – in Arizona, Oklahoma, Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington, and more states. Yet minimal or not, an individually shuttered chain pharmacy location can create chaos, much more so than at traditional retail establishments or, in the case of Starbucks, beverage-retail. If we want to compare numbers, about the same ratio, about 300 out of nearly 9,000 Starbucks have unionized. Those apples-to-oranges are not the same, however. 

When one Starbucks shutters, coffee can easily be found elsewhere. If one’s home pharmacy unexpectedly shutters, it’s difficult to quickly fill that prescription at another pharmacy. Red tape can be involved in the process. You can see where pharmacist walkouts could get tricky, fast. 

This also says nothing of retail metrics and expectations complicating pharmacy work and possibly creating tension in the workplace. Those concerns surface in Reddit forums, and unions are said to be hovering around chain pharmacies. Not too long ago as well, workers at multiple Ohio Walgreens did declare their intent to unionize. Additionally, workers at some CVS locations are unionized under the UFCW

For now, a Walgreens communications officer relayed how the company “understand[s] the immense pressures felt across the US in retail pharmacy right now.” Meanwhile, Walgreens is currently in the process of transitioning to a new CEO after share prices took a substantial fall. Whether that helps to address this situation remains to be seen. 


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