Friday, May 04, 2007

Union workers at pharma company get job security while scientists best have their finances in order

I believe healthcare professionals (and indeed all professionals who are not in the privileged "management" class) need to reconsider unionization very seriously.

Case in point:
Workers ratify pact at Merck's Montco plant

By Thomas Ginsberg
Inquirer Staff Writer
Wed, May. 02, 2007

Unionized workers at Merck & Co. Inc.'s Montgomery County plant, where the drug company is making its new cervical-cancer vaccine and other key products, have ratified a three-year contract containing a no-layoff clause.

In a statement yesterday, the United Steelworkers said 70 percent of the members of Local 10-86 had voted for the contract Monday. The steelworkers' union, which absorbed the former chemical workers' union at the plant, represents roughly 1,800 of the approximately 10,000 employees at Merck's huge West Point complex.

Merck did not comment on the new pact, which will replace one that expires today.

The union said Merck, under the contract, had pledged there would be "no layoffs" of union members at West Point. The company made the promise while it is slashing positions and outsourcing work worldwide, although it also has said no cuts were planned at West Point [timeframe of that 'guarantee' is unspecified, and subject to change at any time, of course - ed.]

This is stunning. The union members (largely clerical, administrative and skilled labor) have ensured job security for themselves, while science professionals with PhD's, MD's and other advanced degrees and expertise are subject to being laid off or outsourced. The layoffs and outsourcings have been considerable:

Merck cutbacks: 7,000 jobs, 5 plants
By Thomas Ginsberg
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — Merck said Monday it will cut 7,000 jobs and close five plants worldwide, the biggest layoff in its history and a sign of deepening retrenchment across the drug industry.

The closings and job cuts, amounting to 11 percent of its nearly 63,000 employees, are expected to save Merck between $3.5 billion and $4 billion between 2006 and 2010, or about 5 percent of its estimated expenses.

Not to sound like a broken record regarding my prior posts on these issues, but this is particularly poignant to me. Firstly, I observed labor unions protecting the rights of people from ticket booth attendants to porters (station janitors) to busdrivers when I was Medical Programs Manager for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in the late 1980's. I was treated far more poorly as a medical trainee - and as a Yale postdoc and junior faculty member - than, say, a unionized SEPTA porter had been.

Second, I was one of those highly skilled Merck science professionals who was laid off as part of the "Equinox" layoffs of 4,400 in Nov 2003 (Merck gives names to its "layoff campaigns") - despite having remediated severe deficiencies in provision of state of the art informatics tools essential to new drug discovery, having helped increase the flow of current scientific information to lab scientists by an order of magnitude over decade-long "norms", and other significant accomplishments. I was laid off not by a scientist, but by a computer executive whose background in medicine and biomedical research was essentially nil.

I admire what the union workers have done for themselves, but can only ask if science professionals deserve what they get in terms of job insecurity through falsely-placed pride and avoidance of unionization (becoming, in effect, "sheeple" subject to the whims of business people lacking a scientific clue but not lacking in the ability to amass significant fortunes for themselves off the sweat of the people they then lay off).

On an added note, I do not believe the decreased productivity in the pharma industry is due primarily to the "low hanging fruit having been picked" and drug discovery having gotten far more difficult as a result. I think there is a far simpler root cause: mismanagement by those without a scientific clue who through perverse b-school-inspired culture acquire leadership roles in biomedicine.

Scientists are distracted by the MBA-charged bureaucracy - e.g., mounds of paperwork, administrivia, needless meetings, emails with complex attachments, "social engineering" initiatives and resultant job insecurity (how can one be creative when afraid of losing their home...?), demoralization, the widening executive compensation gap, territorial disputes with IT and other facilitators, and other issues. This does not even include corruption issues. I also believe similar issues hold true as root casues for problems in the provider side, as numerous HC Renewal posts regarding leadership issues in that sector have illustrated.

In summary, the social aspects of biomedicine are in disarray and the outputs are predictable.

Finally, I believe the the term "human resources" must be excised from the corporate vocabulary. People are not "resources" and that phrase, which replaced the more accurate "personnel", sets the psychological and ideological stage for business treating people like cattle.

-- SS

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