“I Want the Same Protection”—Canadian Peer Harm Reduction Workers Unionize

    Like their counterparts in the United States and around the world, Canadian harm reduction “peer” workers have for decades been deprived of the labor protections often enjoyed by those considered professionals in the field, such as social workers.

    But on January 18, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 1004 (CUPE 1004), announced that the organization’s dozens of peer workers—meaning those with lived experience pertinent to the people they serve—voted unanimously to unionize. CUPE 1004 has represented employees at Vancouver’s Portland Hotel Society (PHS), an operator of supervised consumption sites and syringe service programs, since 1989.

    “This is about respect and recognition,” said Don Cumberland, who has worked at the Washington Needle Depot for almost two decades, in a press release. “I hope this means that the people doing the hard work on the ground saving lives every day will finally get the credit they deserve.”

    It’s taken nearly a year for CUPE 1004 to announce the unionization results; the peers voted in March 2020. PHS challenged the vote, arguing that the arrangement with peer workers was a “vocational therapeutic program” and did not satisfy usual definitions of employment, according to CBC.

    “They don’t need to be made to feel that they are lucky to have a job. We’re lucky to have them.”

    PHS seems to maintain this position to this day. “The peer program is a therapeutic program, not designed as an employment relationship,” Micheal Vonn, the CEO of PHS, told Filter. “Going the route of unionization changes some aspects of the program that peers benefit from. Our only concern was making sure that changes work for the peers.”

    This attempt to delegitimize peer labor is nothing new. In 2014, Toronto harm reduction workers organized their own union, inclusive of peers, and called out this pattern. “People have worked in the same places for years and they’re still not seen as workers,” one Toronto Harm Reduction Workers Union (THRWU) member told Rabble.ca at the time. “Even though they are on payroll or they work, they don’t get in the mix. They aren’t seen as part of the workforce.”

    A THRWU member went on to say, “Workers are workers and they need to be seen that way. They don’t need to be made to feel that they are lucky to have a job. We’re lucky to have them saving lives and reducing transmissions of HIV and hep C and that seriously needs to be acknowledged.”

    In addition to challenging peers’ status as employees, PHS management expressed concern over peer jobs serving as a bridge to employment for people experiencing chaotic day-to-day lives, and that their formalization could eliminate the flexibility of the position. In response, the Vancouver unionization effort narrowed the types of workers eligible for union membership to those in more stable environments. This could mean some of the more precariously situated peer workers, who are often invaluable in harm reduction services, may be left out of the protections accessible to their co-workers.

    “All workers should be entitled to protections and benefits for fulfilling the obligations of employment,” Vonn said. “We are very much looking forward to making this development a success.”

    Basic protections that some more fortunate workers are able to take for granted have been withheld from peers. That will likely change.

    As a result of the PHS challenge, the union had to seal the ballot box. Then the COVID-19 crisis hit, and the proceedings were tabled. A devastating combination of isolation, interrupted drug supply and disconnection from care ensued, exacerbating the country’s overdose crisis.

    Basic protections that some more fortunate workers are able to take for granted have been withheld from peers. That will likely change as they are included in CUPE 1004’s provincial Community Health Collective Agreement. According to the agreement, which spans 2019 through 2022, members are guaranteed a 2 percent wage increase each year; the presence of a shop steward in disciplinary meetings; minimum and maximum hours; paid leaves of absence; and rights for job duties unique to harm reduction services, like live-in and overnight shifts.

    “Our newest members do crucial life-saving work,” said CUPE 1004 President Andrew Ledger in the press release. “The 100 percent YES vote demonstrates the strong solidarity of these workers. We are proud to welcome them into our union.”

    One of the union leaders, Washington Needle Depot peer supervisor Dave Apsey, passed away in April 2020. “I have worked for the PHS for 18 years and this is a long time coming,” Apsey had said in a press release regarding the March vote. “I’m voting yes to join the union because I want the same protection as other PHS employees.” 



    Photograph of PHS workers in March 2020 courtesy of CUPE 1004

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