Harm Reduction Workers Organize in Toronto

PRAC Toronto and the Partisan would like to extend a message of solidarity to the newly formed Toronto Harm Reduction Workers Union (THRWU), Local 610 of the Industrial Workers of the World. On Tuesday, November 11, THRWU officially went public in two workplaces—South Riverdale and Central Toronto Community Health Centres—with plans to roll out in more workplaces over the coming months.

THRWU defines harm reduction as “an evidence-based and practical approach to dealing with the harms associated with drug use. Harm reduction is any program or policy designed to reduce drug-related harms without requiring the cessation or stopping of drug use.” Harm reduction workers provide a variety of services to people who use drugs across the city. This includes peer-based education and outreach, distribution of supplies through needle exchanges, HIV/Hep C support, overdose prevention education and nursing.

According to the union organizers, this is an important development for several reasons:

a) It offers a challenge to the traditional bureaucratic unions, who have failed harm reduction workers, by allowing class division to grow deeper within their workplaces. At the founding convention, back in July, it was found that while 56% workers are employed in unionized work places, only 39% of workers in those workplaces were included in the union. Employers in the social service sector depend on the social assistance system to subsidize their workforce so they can continue to deny benefits, sick days, and job security to workers. The increase of workfare programs, such as the Investing in Neighbourhoods program, appear to give workers on social assistance a “hand up,” but in reality are just replacing entry level jobs with temporary contracts.

b) Industrial unionizing allows workers across the city to unite on an industry basis, not just a shop-by-shop basis. Many harm reduction workers work in isolation from other workers and may be the only such worker in their workplace. Industrial unionizing allows all workers across the city to unite and make concrete demands together. The union also allows for membership of unemployed workers, who bear the brunt of precarious working conditions and also students—who are also often exploited and put into unsafe situations in their work placements and internships.

c) The IWW is an anti-capitalist union, which is attempting to extend the class struggle beyond just the work place. The drug war has wrecked havoc on proletarians and racialized communities since its beginning. The first drug law in Canada, the Opium Act, was instituted to target Chinese workers post the railroad build in order to help strengthen the white settler-colonial nation state. Today, the drug war continues to wreck havoc on proletarians, keeping whole communities locked into a cycle of poverty, state surveillance and police brutality. The IWW is also starting to make grounds organizing incarcerated workers in parts of the United States, and THRWU wishes to make explicit the case that the drug war is a worker’s issue.

d) As the union will continue to grow and thrive, using direct action and worker to worker organizing versus top down labour bureaucracy, it will provide proof to the working class that our successes needn’t depend on automatic dues check offs and paid staffers in order to win the fights we need to survive. We can do it ourselves by uniting together as a class. Just like harm reduction services were won through the struggle of drug using communities organizing for themselves, so will the fight for harm reduction workers’ rights!

If you are a harm reduction worker in Toronto, or would like to find out more contact THRWU through their website: http://thrwu.org