Veterinarians at UK practice vote to strike over pay

'Unprecedented' action comes as workers at large animal shelter in US unionize

Published: July 09, 2024
By Ross Kelly and Lisa Wogan

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Dr. Suzanna Hudson-Cooke, chair of the British Veterinary Union, says its membership grew "exponentially" during the pandemic.

Staff at a large veterinary practice in the United Kingdom have voted to walk off the job next week, in what their union says will be the first labor action of its kind for the country's veterinary profession.

Valley Vets in Wales employs around 120 people, including veterinarians, veterinary nurses and administrative staff, according to the British Veterinary Union (BVU). In a postal ballot in which 93% of the practice's employees participated, 94% voted in favor of striking, the union said.

The practice comprises five sites in southern Wales, including a specialty and emergency hospital in Cardiff. It is owned by VetPartners, a corporate consolidator with 650 sites in the U.K., Ireland and mainland Europe. VetPartners, in turn, is owned by the private equity firm BC Partners.

Under British law, employees must give at least two weeks' notice before striking. That notice was given to VetPartners on July 2 for a two-week strike beginning July 16, the union announced in a press release.

The union would keep "minimal staffing levels" in place throughout the strike to handle acute emergency cases, its chairperson, Dr. Suzanna Hudson-Cooke, said in an interview. "We wouldn't want there to be a situation where there would be unnecessary suffering for patients," she said.

The strike may not happen, Hudson-Cooke added, should VetPartners opt to renegotiate.

In brief

For its part, VetPartners said it was saddened by the strike vote.

"We entered into discussions with the union in good faith with the hope of achieving a resolution," it said in an email. "As a responsible business, we are committed to sustainably improving terms and conditions, including salaries, for our team members."

VetPartners maintains that it prioritized the practice's lowest-paid staff by offering them a 7.27% pay increase. Higher-paid staff also were offered a raise, at a lower rate.

The BVU contends that VetPartner's offer was "derisory" in the context of a cost-of-living crisis. The practice's lowest-paid staff, it said, barely make more than the U.K.'s minimum wage of £11.44/hour (US$14.62), and "in-work poverty is rife" at the practice.

Hudson-Cooke wouldn't disclose the size of the raise the union wants, citing confidentiality in negotiations. The striking staff also are requesting better maternity and sick pay.

Labor action by veterinarians in the U.K. isn't unprecedented. Last year, veterinarians employed by Northern Ireland's government went on strike for five days in a pay dispute. If Valley Vets staff strike, they will be the first employees at a private veterinary company to do so in the U.K., according to the union.

The BVU was established in 2012 as an arm of Unite, a large U.K. union that represents more than 1 million people across various occupations, such as manufacturing, transport, food and construction. Hudson-Cooke said that although it took a few years for the BVU to get off the ground, its membership grew "exponentially" during the pandemic. She declined to give a membership number, citing a need for confidentiality in negotiations.

"People, I think, realized during Covid that their employer wasn't always on their side," Hudson-Cooke said. "They ended up in some quite dangerous situations, and that encouraged people to seek legal support."

The labor dispute comes as the U.K.'s competition regulator conducts a sweeping probe of pricing levels in the country's veterinary profession — and whether they're being driven higher by a lack of competition. The review, which formally commenced last month and could take up to two years, may result in forced practice sales and a cap on veterinary prescription fees, the regulator has said.

Corporate consolidators maintain that prices for veterinary care are being driven up by a host of factors, including a labor shortage that is forcing them to pay higher wages. VetPartners said it felt it couldn't raise prices further "to support significant salary increases demanded by the BVU."

The union contends that pay in the British veterinary profession remains relatively low and that prices are being driven higher by big salaries for "fat cat" executives.

British veterinarians are paid between £30,000 and £50,000 on average per year (US$38,000 to US$64,000), government figures show. That compares with the US$119,100 median made by U.S. veterinarians, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. (U.K. veterinarians, however, have a large portion of their tuition subsidized by the government and so carry less educational debt than their U.S. peers, and tend to do better on vacation benefits. Moreover, the U.S. dollar is historically strong against the U.K. pound at the moment, distorting comparisons).

Animal shelter workers unionize in Texas

Across the Atlantic, veterinary technicians, assistants and other animal care workers at a nonprofit shelter in Austin, Texas, are among support staff who successfully voted to join a union in early June. It's not the first union at a shelter in the United States — at least three have formed in the past few years alone — but with 180 workers, it is the largest, according to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), which represents the workers.

The vote was 81 to 35 in favor of the union. Austin Pets Alive! employee and union organizer Ryan Martinez told the VIN News Service: "The reason we are doing all this is we believe that by supporting the staff, we help the animals. It's all in service of them."

Martinez said the union wants the shelter to hire more staff. The workers, he added, also hope to discuss salaries, including pushing for greater transparency about salary structure and opportunities for promotion.

The National Veterinary Professionals Union supported the effort. "We know that the care and welfare of unowned animals throughout the country falls to overworked and underpaid people who are committed to and invested in the care of these animals," said NVPU President Liz Hughston. "Much like veterinary workers, shelter workers often have no voice in decisions that are made that impact them and the animals they care for …"

IAM organizer Keith Chub McCrory said the nonprofit employer fought hard against the union leading up to the vote. But he added that the workers were ready for the fight from day one. "They already had their organizing committee in the first meeting," he said. "They had their ducks lined up. They did their research."

Dr. Ellen Jefferson, president and CEO of the Austin shelter, said she was surprised but not shocked by the union drive, which she believes was partly inspired by the recent wave of organizing at animal hospitals.

Since 2018, support staff at eight for-profit veterinary hospitals have voted to form unions, although only two have managed to ratify contracts so far. The labor actions have been mostly at practices owned by private equity groups or large corporations, which tend to have more financial resources than animal shelters.

Jefferson said she understands workers' concerns but expressed doubt that a union is the best way to improve conditions.

"I think that the concerns that we hear [from our employees] are pervasive throughout the industry in terms of just the number of animals and the number of people that are there to do the work and to care for them," Jefferson said. The shelter industry, she added, is at least 30 years behind the rest of the "veterinary industry in terms of supporting people with the right education, the right tools, the right resources, and the right budget."

She also said that workers in Austin may have been galvanized by the "double whammy" of recent increases in the number of animals in the shelter, nearly reaching pre-pandemic levels, and a drop-off in volunteers. The developments might be particularly "alarming," she said, to employees who began working at the shelter during the pandemic when the staff-to-animal ratio was better.

Jefferson said the shelter was "committed to working in good faith with the union," adding that the organization has enacted several "pro-worker" initiatives in recent years, such as improving benefits, adding holidays and increasing its minimum wage to $17 per hour, above Austin's $15-an-hour minimum. "But I think it goes to show that even those millions of dollars that we've pumped into trying to help people feel supported isn't even enough in this climate," she said, "and we've got to figure out how to keep working at it."

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