PharmaView: Are Unions (Love 'Em or Not) the Last Bastion for Pharma Job Security?

Communities can partner with manufacturers, but they can’t apply pressure.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Editor

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Hamilton, Montana, September 19: Exciting news today as a $240,000 grant from the Big Sky Economic Trust Fund will help GSK Biologicals purchase new equipment for its facility that manufactures a key adjuvant for Cervarix, its cervical cancer vaccine. The grant is also expected to bring up to 32 jobs to the community.

“The grant funds will flow through the city of Hamilton,” writes The Missoulian newspaper. As a show of support, writers from GSK helped the local economic development authority draft the grant application.

Barnard Castle, U.K., September 22: Community leaders say “everything is being done” to encourage GSK to build a plant that would create 300-500 jobs and bring £10 million a year to the area. “A Glaxo spokesman said officials had been very helpful in assisting the company assess the merits of the County Durham site,” states The Northern Echo paper. Alas, GSK is also being wooed by Ulverston, and the Scottish towns of Montrose and Irvine.

All over the world, every day, a delicate courtship ritual plays out: between faltering communities and fickle manufacturers. GSK need not be singled out. (In fact, CEO Andre Witty has expressed fierce loyalty to the U.K., deriding companies that "float in and out of societies" to capture favorable tax rates and perks.) From Scotland to Singapore, business and community leaders are bending over backwards—some would say prostituting themselves—to lure pharma and biotech investment. It’s about jobs. It’s about the tax base.

Big Pharma—is it okay to say Big Biopharma yet?—is only more than happy to welcome such propositions. And well it should. Companies should secure the best deals they can, as long as they’re on the level about their true intentions and the extent of their loyalties. Truth be told, most company/town, public/private relationships are long and happy.

But fidelity can be fleeting. Just ask Puerto Rico. Now that tax incentives aren’t so robust, the consensus among manufacturers regarding the island seems to be: "Sure, nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to stay there." In 10 years will they say the same thing about Ireland, Singapore, or Hamilton, Montana?

With biotech hot and business and political leaders across the globe desperate, manufacturers have leverage. What recourse do communities have?

What security do workers have? Maybe what’s happening in Berkeley, California is telling. There, Bayer and its 400 employees have been locked in a contract dispute over pay, benefits, and job security. Two years ago, Bayer was granted tax subsidies to expand the Berkeley site, and workers want the company to reciprocate on what they view as preferential treatment from the Bay Area. Despite Bayer’s closing of the nearby Emeryville plant, civic leaders stand by Bayer.

Just recently, a tentative contract agreement was struck, pending a vote by union members. Before, however, employees had considered a “range of options” should negotiations have failed. One would presume that included the potential of a strike. What gave them such audacity? As it turns out, a union, and a very powerful one—the International Longshore & Warehouse Union. Patience with Bayer “is running thin,” said ILWU spokesperson Craig Merrilees recently. In response, Bayer said it has delivered on any commitments, and more.

People behind the scenes will tell you that the workers would never have gotten this far without union muscle. But that’s not a bad thing—industry professionals have very little recourse these days. Some of our best scientists, plant managers, and Quality personnel are out on the street, or at least hanging out the consulting shingle. Communities can woo and coddle manufacturers, but they can’t play hardball in defense of jobs.

I’m not a union guy. And dad wasn’t a Teamster or Postal Worker. But unions have been hit hard these past few years, so expect them to push back. I’m not choosing sides in the Bayer Berkeley dispute, but if unions are the only thing fighting for pharma and biopharma professionals’ job security, then so be it. Someone’s gotta do it.

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