Toronto harm reduction workers organize with the IWW

An article about a new IWW campaign of harm reduction workers in Toronto.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on December 20, 2014

On Friday, April 4, 2014, over 100 harm reduction workers from across Toronto came together in a historic gathering. Although industry-wide meetings are common, conversation usually centers on the latest news and policies affecting services; people share information about toxic heroin on the streets, increased police carding in a certain area, or new laws around HIV and their impact on how we advise our service users and our friends. This time, the theme was different—the topic of discussion was work.

Workers shared stories of unionized workplaces with trade unions that wouldn’t have them as members; others spoke about the fact that management depends on workers being on social assistance to offset their low wages and lack of benefits. Workers doing the same jobs at two different sites realized that while one group was making $10 for three hours of work, the other was being paid $15 per hour. Some workers explained that they were paid with transit tokens and pizza. Some workers demanded a union.

On Nov. 11, after months of intensive organizing, the Toronto Harm Reduction Workers Union (THRWU), an affiliate of the Toronto General Membership Branch of the IWW, announced its existence to management at South Riverdale Community Health Centre and Central Toronto Community Health Centres. The union demanded employer recognition, a promise of non-retaliation for union activity, and a meeting with management to discuss important issues of workplace equity. The union also announced its intention to forgo the highly legalistic and bureaucratized Ontario Labour Relations Board certification process, electing for a strategy of solidarity unionism that allows workers full control over decision making. The THRWU is a city-wide organization, representing over 50 employed, unemployed, and student workers. It currently has members at over a dozen agencies, and is continuing to organize with the goal of unionizing all of the city’s harm reduction workers. “Along with the direct unionism approach, the THRWU campaign is also based on a multiple workplace organizing model that allows for organizing committees at multiple sites to pool their resources and experiences as they organize together. This solidarity is a precursor to expanding workers’ struggle to the broader industry,” explained THRWU workerorganizer Sarah Ovens.

Harm reduction work began with the implementation and provision of needle distribution for safer use of injection drugs. Before policy makers were ready to put aside stigma and ideology to adopt evidence-based practices proven to save lives and improve health and wellness, drug users were organizing themselves. They knew what needed to be done in order to protect themselves and their communities by sharing supplies and information about safer use. They formed formal and informal organizations to have each other’s backs and protect each other against the HIV epidemic that was devastating their communities. These strategies are second nature to people who live under the weight of poverty, criminalization and the war on drugs, which is a war on drug users and working-class people.

Following the implementation of the first needle exchange programs in the 1980s, these efforts led to the more wide-scale adoption and funding of harm reduction programs. As these programs became larger and more established, new struggles emerged around the need for these services to use the knowledge and expertise of those with lived experience of drug use, homelessness and incarceration. The City of Toronto now has over 45 agencies distributing needle exchange supplies, all of which rely on the participation and labour of people who use drugs. But the struggle continues. While trying to keep ahead of a never-ending barrage of cuts, clawbacks, and conservative attacks, front line workers’ focus has primarily been on the provision of services, and not on their own working conditions. Before the THRWU initiated its organizing campaign, many workers didn’t see themselves as real workers. Many workers were reluctant to advocate for improvements in their working conditions; instead, they were made to feel lucky to “have a job,” they said. This, despite the fact that front line workers are the experts that make harm reduction work.

Neoliberalism in the form of healthcare spending cuts and the implementation of corporate management structures has created new challenges for workers and service users. An increasing demand for post-secondary education, where previously lived experience was the only job requirement, has led to a shift in workplace culture. New pressures for the intensification of invasive data collection and reporting have taken workers away from necessary frontline work. This professionalization has watered down harm reduction work and has created a class of workers who are not seen as “actual workers” by their colleagues in the workplace. The THRWU is organizing to address this inequality and to improve services.

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 workplaces as well as in broader political struggles. THRWU worker-organizer Zoë Dodd summed up the general feeling of the union: “This is a very exciting moment for us as workers, and for harm reduction programs worldwide. We are ready and excited to join the fight to reduce the harms associated with work.”

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2014)