TAM-arkiv mobilmeny

Three trade unions – one pharmacy

Lars-Erik Hansen, Leif Jacobsson

It was in the wake of industrialism, as a result of the contradiction between labour and capital, that the Swedish trade union movement emerged in the late 1800s. Until this time, there were mill-like and patriarchal conditions in the field of pharmacy. But the 1900s came to mean major changes in the pharmacy sector. The chemical industry was rapidly developing; technology was evolving. During the new century, three different unions for pharmacy employees also emerged. This article is based on the pharmacy environments of the 1800s and describes the development in the pharmacy industry from a union perspective. What have been the main issues for the industry? Pharmacy staffing had long had varying backgrounds and levels of education, would they then be part of the same union?

Changes within pharmacy

Well into the 1800s, working hours were unregulated in Sweden. For pharmacies, this often meant long opening hours as well as working days for the employees. At this time, pharmacies were characterized by mill-like structures, like many other sectors of the labour market. The owner of the larger pharmacies often bore the title of assessor and indulged in a patriarchal relationship with his employees. Even into the 1900s, it was common for pharmacists to live near the pharmacy, sometimes even in the same premises as its owners, and eat communal meals.

For a long time, pharmacies were a male-dominated workplace. In 1890, three girls applied for the right to be admitted as pharmacy students. On June 19, 1891, the reply came in a royal proclamation: ”Any young woman may be admitted as a pupil in a pharmacy and after completing the pharmaceutical service and the completion of the knowledge prof prescribed for pharmacists, obtain the various rights which accrue to the male pharmacist”. But the decision had not been taken without misgivings. One objection was that the woman’s physical strength was too weak for the heavy pharmacy work, another that cooperation with young men could pose a danger to the girls, especially when on duty at night. Once women gained access to the pharmacies, despite fears, they quickly became a sought-after workforce.

Many pharmacies at this time were financially vulnerable. Pharmacists in pharmacies, especially the elderly, were low-paid. Even the income of the pharmacist who ran a small pharmacy could be remarkably low. During the latter half of the 1800s, it became increasingly common for pharmacies to employ staff without pharmaceutical training. In this way, pharmacies were able to keep costs down and maintain their workforce even in periods when it was difficult to recruit pharmacists in sufficient numbers, as was the case, for example, after the Spanish flu.

In 1823, some pharmacists working in Stockholm requested the governor’s office to hold meetings regarding, among other things, a planned fund to support old and poor pharmacists. But of course, the harsh and dire economic situation also affected the professional pharmacists. As a workplace, pharmacies had a special position in that they positioned themselves between a fully state and a private enterprise. Pharmacies and their proprietors had an esteemed position in society, but for other staff the situation was more enigmatic with low wages by comparison and general conditions.

The twentieth century brought major changes in pharmacy operations. The chemical industry was in rapid development and was taking over much of the pharmacy’s production of various medicinal preparations. The patriarchal views and values of the old days gradually began to be replaced by the demands of a more modern age for the regulation of employment and service relations.

Swedish pharmaceutists seek to organize themselves

The interest in a trade union association for pharmaceutists can be traced early, but it was not until 1861 that work to create a pharmaceutical society was crowned with success when the Swedish Pharmaceutical Association (Sw. Farmaceutiska föreningen) was duly formed. Both unpromoted and promoted pharmacists were allowed to participate in this. The association was originally aimed mainly at pharmacists working in Stockholm, but soon similar associations were formed around the country. After a while, a number of unpromoted pharmaceutists began to express a desire for the members of the pharmaceutical profession to form a joint association. A letter to the country’s pharmaceutical clubs in 1902 thus resulted in the formation of a central board for Sweden’s clubs of pharmaceutists. On April 12, 1903, representatives of the clubs gathered to constituate the Central Board of the Swedish Pharmaceutical Association (SFF, Centralstyrelsen för Sveriges farmaceutförbund).

SFF’s first annual meeting was held in July 1903. Some of the first questions dealt with were the field of work of technical assistants, as well as a proposal for a change in medical supplies and branch dispensaries to independent dispensaries. During its first decades, SFF worked to be accepted as a consultative body in matters concerning pharmacy. They also worked to gain influence on the administration of the pharmacy system. Previously, the Swedish Pharmaceutical Society (Sw. Apotekarsocieteten), which was an association for employers, those who owned the pharmacies, had been the only referral body. Administratively, pharmacies were under the direction of the National Swedish Board of Health. At this time, the board was composed exclusively of doctors and physicians who also carried out pharmacy inspections. SFF argued that it was necessary to have pharmacists as representatives on the Board and that they could act as inspectors.

Working hours in pharmacies were still long. In a letter to the Swedish Pharmaceutical Society in 1901, the Stockholm Pharmacists’ Club proposed that pharmacies should close at eight instead of nine o’clock in the evening, but this was turned down. The major reform in the field of night duty, the introduction of night pharmacies, was delayed until 1948.

As early as the autumn of 1946, there had been discussions within SFF about a possible connection to TCO (Eng. Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees). But if there had been great hesitation within the union’s leadership about the idea of partially relinquishing its independent status as a trade union organization, it did not diminish after a new central organization, Saco, showed interest in the union. At the council meeting in 1947, however, a majority said that they were in favour of joining Saco, and this was also the case.

Pharmacy employees form their own

The technical staff at the pharmacies were not satisfied with their work situation and felt that they ended up on the sidelines within SFF. On August 15, 1931, a group of pharmacy employees met in the premises of the Female Clerical Association in Norrköping for a first congress under the name Sveriges Tekniska Apotekspersonals Förbund (STAF). A clear aim of the initiators was to keep the members together as a professional group. It was therefore not just a question of satisfying the financial interests in the form of salary, pension and employment conditions. For this reason, the union initially rejected proposals from the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), the Central Organization of Employees (Daco) and later the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO) to organize the technical staff within the already existing organization Swedish Pharmaceutical Association.  

An important issue at the first congress was the relationship with SFF. A committee was appointed to seek cooperation with SFF to find a solution to pension and contractual issues. Apothecaries and pharmacists had their pension issue resolved since 1929, but for the technical staff and the new union this issue became a serial of sorts. Already at that time, there was a clear dividing line in the attitude of employers within the Swedish Pharmacists’ Association (Sw. Apotekareförbundet) towards ”pharmaceutical” and ”non-pharmaceutical” staff. It was not until the summer of 1936 that efforts on the pension issue were crowned with some success. Although the material content was not in line with STAF’s goals, the management was still able to register a union success. The pension issue in the pharmacy sector continued to be a central issue and on several occasions created extensive discussions within SSF and STAF.

In the early 1950s, STAF changed its name to Apoteksteknikerförbundet (ATF). Note that pharmacy technicians and pharmacy cleaners at this time belonged to the same union. In 1954, after lively discussions, the union was granted entry into TCO. The condition was that the union should become a purely white-collar union, which in consequence meant that the cleaners had to leave the union. This caused irritation in the ranks of the members. However, ATF undertook to help the pharmacy cleaners in every way to form their own organization. So, by the same token (in 1954), the Swedish Association of Pharmacy Cleaners was formed as a separate organization. In 1984, the Swedish Association of Pharmacy Cleaners changed its name to the Swedish Association of Pharmacy Employees. It was never affiliated with any trade union confederation. In the magazine ”Apotekstjänstemannen” (Eng The Pharmacy Official) from 1984 the name change from Apoteksstäderskeförbundet to Apoteksanställdas förbund is commented. This took place at a congress in Visby on 17th-18th September 1984. One important reason was that about 100 members at the production in Gothenburg, Malmö, Stockholm and Umeå who had not had cleaning work wanted to bring about a change in the name. The cleaners also had other tasks in parallel with cleaning. But the union was small, and when the pharmacies moved cleaning outside their operations, the Association of Pharmacy Employees was forced to close down in 2005 after 50 years.

ATF soon changed its name again to Apotekstjänstemannaförbundet (the Association of Pharmacy Officials) but was able to keep the same abbreviation. In the 1990s, the word ”official” was removed. In 1991, the association adopted the name the Swedish Pharmacy Association ATF and in 1993 only called itself the Swedish Pharmacy Association. The name changes reflect how the union is transitioning from being a pure technicians’ union to wanting to be a union for all professional groups at pharmacies.

Battles over occupational training

An issue that dominated the technical staff’s union within STAF (later ATF) early on was training. The situation in the 1930s meant that all vocational training for the technical staff took place in pharmacies under the guidance of experienced colleagues. The level of education was very variable among the staff who began their employment in pharmacies. The boys often started working as errand boys right after elementary school and eventually became laboratory assistants. The girls, on the other hand, often had a real degree when they started working for pharmacies. It was common for them to stop working at the pharmacy after marriage or to simply see pharmacy work as a pass through to other types of work. The tasks of the technical staff varied. While some worked as clerks or cashiers, others worked in the manufacture of medicines, dispensing customers, or printing labels, the latter under the supervision of a pharmaceutic.

The discussion on the need for training that took place within STAF aimed both at meeting the members’ desire for improvement and to creating better salary negotiation opportunities with employers. From the beginning, employers took on a cool or dismissive attitude towards STAF’s wishes. STAF then took matters into its own hands and entered into an agreement with Hermods for a correspondence course for training as pharmacy technician. The first courses were organized in the 1940s and there was great interest among the members. Many also came to have their studies through Tjänstemännens bildningsverksamhet (TBV, Eng. the Officials’ Educational Association) to which STAF joined in 1944. As the courses were conducted in the evenings, they often led to interruptions in studies, which contributed to the establishment in the 1960s of a two-year pharmacy technician programme during the day at a number of vocational schools. During the next decade, vocational schools were incorporated as streams in upper secondary school, as well as the pharmacy technician education.

In 1978, the state-owned Apoteksbolaget initiated a study on the various vocational training courses. The company proposed that a new, common basic education of 80 credits should replace pharmacy technician and prescriptionist education. Four years later, the government decided that the new prescriptionist training would be launched in 1983. The decision spawned an intense and long-lasting debate between the union parties and Apoteksbolaget. The Swedish Pharmaceutical Association (SFF) demanded a halt to employment for pharmacy technicians, which the Swedish Association of Pharmacy Employees (ATF) said was a blatant expression of egotism.  SFF further argued that SFF was a natural home for the newly trained prescriptionists, whereas ATF considered that all pharmacy staff should belong to their organization which, according to them, had a clearer employee profile. Oftentimes, ATF pushed for the opinion that it would be better to have a common federation, but from SFF’s side there was no interest in a merger.

In a lecture held in TAM-Arkiv’s premises in the mid-1980s, pharmacy technician Brita Öjesson talked about her personal experiences emphasizing the importance of trade union rights and education:

”For the latter part of my active time, I have been working union-wise. I have been a member of a group council, an environmental council and a member of the district board. ATF has had a wide range of trade union studies to offer and I have participated in many courses over the years. And that’s a right I think you should take advantage of.”

At this time, the Swedish Pharmaceutical Association was working for longer training periods for professional groups in pharmacies. The three-year prescriptionist training was largely the work of the Swedish Pharmaceutical Association. SFF also participated in the work of promoting a longer pharmacy education, which resulted in today’s five-year education. Another issue that SFF pushed through in the 1990s was the reintroduction of the licence ID. In order to work as a pharmacist with a prescription dispensary at Swedish pharmacies, in addition to a professional degree, a license from the National Board of Health and Welfare is required.

Pharmacies nationalized

In 1970, the pharmacies were nationalized and Apoteksbolaget AB was formed. The decision had been preceded by a one-man investigation conducted by pharmacist Rune Lönngren. SSF produced its own white paper that largely coincided with the proposals put forth in the inquiry. The takeover bid involved a major adjustment process. The transition was particularly significant for the approximately 300 pharmacy holders. All of these – except three – voluntarily joined SSF, which formed its own section for them called the Pharmacy Proprietors’ Section. The ATF also supported the nationalization proposal.

Negotiate the right way

The issue of wages has for a long time been central to unions that organized pharmacy staff. In the earlier years of trade unions, it happened on several occasions that the employer party proposed lower pay for female professionals. Especially, in times of labour shortages, this issue came to the fore. At this time, demanding higher wages for men than women was not unique to pharmaceutists. In elementary school, the male elementary school teachers managed to through a demand for higher pay, whereby these women chose to break away from their union and form a union of their own. However, the Swedish Pharmaceutical Association has never reached agreements that provide for fundamentally different rules for men and women, but the union has also never taken into account how the terms of employment actually affect women. For example, the XXX reform on part-time work is the xxx year reform. It is conceivable that the reform made it possible to start a family, but at the same time had negative consequences for women’s pay, promotion and pensions.

In the mid-1970s, the Swedish Association of Pharmacy Employees made a real cut. Wage increases totalled nearly 40 per cent during this decade. However, in negotiations in the first half of the 1980s, there was strong opposition to wage demands from the union’s counterpart, Statsföretagens förhandlingsorganisation (SFO, the State Enterprises’ Bargaining Organization). Now it was up to ATF to painstakingly buffer force behind words so that the other party should understand the seriousness of the union’s demands and so that its members should have continued confidence in their union. Against this background, the ATF went out in its first strike. Although the outcome was not what the union wanted, the conflict contributed to strengthening the union. The next breakthrough came in 1984 when the first agreement that broke the traditional organizational structure of pharmacies was signed. The agreement gave ATF full negotiating rights for pharmacy technicians and prescriptionists. The unions saw this as an important step towards the long-term goal of a unified union for all pharmacy employees.

A major change that had begun in the early 1980s was the transition from a central tariff wage system to local negotiations and individual wage setting. The trigger for the change was the historic agreement concerning prescriptionists of the 21st of September 1984. From 1985 onwards, ATF was to sign contracts both for pharmacy technicians who went on fixed tariff wages and for prescriptionists who had a freer wage setting. The negotiating management considered it cumbersome indeed to have two salary systems within the union, but made it clear that members would decide this highly charged issue. Initially, a clear majority was negative to a freer wage setting, but then public opinion swung and at the congress in the spring of 1987 the proposal had a clear majority, which contributed to the union starting to apply individual salary setting from 1988. SSF, like other Saco affiliated unions, had long had individual salary setting.

At the end of the 1990s and in the 2000s, health and safety problems in pharmacies worsened, making health and safety one of the highest priorities in the unions. It was clear that the increased performance and profit requirements affected the work environment. ATF, now known as the Swedish Pharmacy Association, demanded that Apoteket AB address both acute and long-term work environment issues, which contributed to the establishment of a work environment group in 1999.

Deregulation or re-regulation?

In 1984, the Swedish Medicines Inquiry published an evaluation of how the state-owned monopoly company Apoteksbolaget AB had managed its tasks during its initial period. The evaluation gave the new system good marks. Personnel organizations had also been in favour of finding a new employer. But in connection with the regime change in Sweden in 1991 and the rapprochement with the EU, the debate about the pharmacy monopoly gained momentum. The non-socialist government appointed an inquiry into the matter. In the interim report ”Läkemedel och Kompetens” (Eng. ”Medicinal drugs and Competence”) , it was proposed to divide medicinal products into different sales classes and to introduce new rules on competence. The proposal meant, among other things, that certain non-prescription drugs could be sold in grocery stores without the requirement for pharmaceutical competence among staff. The Swedish Pharmacy Association’s consultation response – which was based on a broad member debate – resulted in a no to this part of the proposal. After the non-socialist government lost the 1994 election, thoughts of privatizing pharmacies were temporarily mothballed. In 1999, the then Social Democratic Minister of Social Affairs Lars Engqvist said that the Swedish pharmacy system worked well. Apoteket AB should continue to have exclusive rights to retail sales of pharmaceuticals.

But the non-socialist government that took office in 2006 had a different view of the pharmacy system. It appointed a study on the liberalization of the pharmacy market. On July 1, 2009, the state pharmacy monopoly ended. The Swedish Association of Pharmaceutists (Sw. Sveriges Farmaceuter) favoured the proposal as this meant more jobs for pharmaceutists. The Pharmacy Association swung on the issue, from being against the privatization of pharmacies to taking the same positive attitude as the Swedish Association of Pharmaceutists.


In 2005 there were four trade unions for pharmacy employees. Farmaciförbundet, Sveriges Farmaceutförbund (SFF), employees at the head office belonged to Handelstjänstemanna-förbundet (HTF) and the union home of the cleaning staff was often Apoteksanställdas förbund.

However, the number of associations in the pharmacy area has decreased in recent years. In 2012, SSF changed its name from ”Sveriges Farmaceutförbund” to ”Sveriges Farmaceuter”. The Association organizes prescriptionists and pharmaceutists. HTF (Eng. the Swedish Union of Commercial Salaried Employees) and SIF (Eng. the Swedish Union of Clerical and Technical Employees in Industry) merged to form Unionen on 1st January 2008 and 1st January 2014 the Swedish Pharmaceutical Association ceased to exist as a separate union through a merger with Unionen.

Is the merger the beginning of a protracted battle for members in the Pharmacy area?

In an article about the merger in the first issue of Unionen’s magazine ”Kollega”, the Union’s union representative at the head office of Apoteket AB informs that ”there is a huge recruitment potential. We want to be the obvious choice for everyone who works in the industry, pharmacy and health.”

However, Kristina Niemo, director of the Swedish Association of Pharmaceutists, takes the message of the merger and competition for members calmly: ”We do not see it as a threat, quite the contrary. The fact that there are strong trade union parties is a win-win for everyone. But we and the Swedish Pharmacy Association have been side by side in this arena for many years. From a gutfelt position, it is a pity they are no longer with us – they do not go up in smoke but exist within another type of organization that is a larger party in many contexts. Certainly, there will be a changed playing field,” she says.


Svensk Farmaci under 1900-talet

Alexandersson, Olle, Pallin, Elisabet (red.), Yrket i fokus. 1983. Uppsala 1983.

Ellebring, Nils, Apotekstjänstemannaförbundet ATF 50 år. En rapsodi i text och bild kring dåtid, nutid och framtid, Stockholm 1981.

Molin, Karl, Den modern patriarken: Om arbetsledarna och samhällsomvandlingen 1905–1935, Stockholm 1998.

Rolfer, Bengt, Farmaciförbundet 75 år 1931-2006. Farmaciförbundet, Stockholm 2006.

Schiratzki, Malin (red.), Jubileumsskrift av Farmaceutisk Revy. Sveriges Farmaceutförbund 100 årsjubileum 1903-2003. Oskarshamn 2004.

Sparrlöf, Göran, ”Vi manliga lärare”: Folkskolans lärare och lärarinnor i kamp om löner och arbetsområden 1920-1963, Umeå 2007.

Sveriges Farmaceutförbund 50 år: 1903-1953, Stockholm 1954.

Sveriges Farmaceutförbund 75 år, I ett jubileumsnummer av Farmacevtisk Revy, Stockholm 1978.

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