Black Poppy and INPUD, are more than pleased to report on THRWU, the world’s first ever harm reduction workers’ union which went public on 11 November 2014. Members of INPUD have been involved in this campaign, with a major shout out going to Torontonian Raffi Balian – (a long time friend of both Black Poppy and member of INPUD since its beginnings). Raffi has been a serious mover and shaker on the East Side of Canada for about 20 years now, setting up CounterFIT, which has consistently brought us all innovative, user led and drug user centric projects while inspiring people from all over the world that there is a time to stop thinking and just do it! So it was no surprise to see Raffi, (the guy kneeling down with the green jacket on the left in the picture below) at it again, enthusing, organising, promoting and supporting his fellow junkies, workers, and of course the community.
Toronto Harm Reduction Workers Union -What are you waiting for -give your local union leader (IWW) a call and start talking!
The Toronto Harm Reduction Workers Union is a city-wide organization, representing over 50 employed, unemployed, and student workers. At the launch workers at two of the city’s largest harm reduction programs went public with their affiliation to the Union which is a part of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW is a fighting union for all workers that organizes workers regardless of skill or trade and it is member (not staff) run, with a long history of fighting for the most oppressed and marginalized workers in society
The majority of these workers have been hired for their lived experience of using drugs, incarceration and homelessness and are continuing to organize with the goal of unionizing all of the city’s harm reduction workers.
THRWU speak about the need to organise around many of the issues affecting the industry – of which many harm reduction workers who come from a drug using background, will know a lot about. THRWU point to some of the main areas on their website:
- Discrepancies in wages, with workers doing similar work taking home vastly different pay.
- People work for years without raises, and have limited to no access to benefits, vacation and sick days.
- Management depends on social assistance to provide the basic benefits that workers need (such as emergency dental and drug benefits). This is especially detrimental for those of us hired because we live with HIV and/or Hep C, or use opiode substitution therapy.
- Workers are discriminated against based on the lived experience they are hired for.
- Many positions are extremely precarious, with grants and funding threatened by conservative and anti-science ideology, and austerity budgets that endanger public health.
These are very real issues affecting the daily lives of people who’s work is not just a job, but a ’cause’, a life, based on their lived experience and a way to put their heart and soul back into their communities, funneling years and years of privileged insight into their work, which has gone such a long way towards stemming the HIV epidemic in the drug injecting community. And damn right they deserve paid work or a raise along with everyone else! Damn right their should be the chance of promotion from volunteer to worker, to team leader to manager. Let’s all be clear here, harm reduction would not work saving the lives it does, reducing the harm it does, stemming the tide of infectious diseases that it does, without the world’s harm reduction workers and many of these are our peers. People who use drugs, used drugs, are on prescriptions etc. The majority of work is unsung, underpaid and under acknowledged for the real impact it has on the community.
So who are we talking about exactly? Well, let’s let THRWU speak for themselves!
“We are the workers that make harm reduction work. We are the kit makers, outreach workers, community workers, and coordinators that reduce the harms associated with bad drug laws, poverty and capitalism. As working class people, our communities have been hard hit by the War on Drugs, the epidemics of HIV, Hepatitis C and overdose deaths. We are organizing to better our working conditions and improve the services we provide. And we are organizing to fight for a society free of oppression and injustice.”
Below is THRWU’s mandate and definition of harm reduction:
“THRWU is an organization of Harm Reduction Workers who are united together in solidarity, to improve our working conditions and to strengthen equality in the workplace for the betterment of the workers and those who access the services. We are a union of employed and unemployed workers committed to harm reduction with a range of skills, education and lived experience. We have come together in our common concerns to form a non-hierarchical democratic labour union with a commitment to mutual aid, social justice and the principles of harm reduction.”
“Harm reduction is an evidence-based and practical approach to dealing with the harms associated with drug use…Harm reduction also aims to respond to harm experienced on a structural or societal level (such as stigma, discrimination and criminalization). This work should be grounded in the values of respect, non-judgment, and in the promotion of self-determination and self-empowerment for folks involved!
We recognize that many healthcare and social service providers endorse a ‘harm reduction framework’ in name only. Our union will prioritize those workers who are actively engaged in harm reduction work, as defined above!”
INPUD, the International Network of People who use Drugs are positive about the future as more drug users self organise. In a statement of support INPUD said, “In the context of the War on Drugs, in which our fellow workers are the casualties, an organizing campaign of this nature is exciting. The THRWU is setting itself up to be a powerful voice for harm reduction workers in the workplaces as well as in broader political struggles”. Last word to THRWU: “We need to organize ourselves to demand an improvement in wages and in workplace conditions. We love the work we do but we also know we need to be treated more equitably. There are many of us working in harm reduction and we can work in solidarity with each other to improve this.”
Boy oh boy, lets wish them luck with their new unionised labour force and their further organizing efforts!
How do I organize a Harm Reduction Workers Union in my city?
If you are interested in building a Harm Reduction Workers Union in your city, get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org