The world's first union for harm reduction workers

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, I speak with Zoë Dodd and Peter Leslie, who are harm reduction workers and active members of the world's first union specifically for such workers: the Toronto Harm Reduction Workers Union.

"Harm reduction" is an approach to responding to addiction that focuses on meeting people where they are at in terms of substance use and working with them to reduce negative health outcomes. There is considerable evidence that a harm reduction approach has better health outcomes overall than approaches which insist that people completely cease using substances before they are eligible for supports. Of course, the programs and practices of harm reduction don't just happen on their own but are enacted by people -- that is, by workers. And one key element in most harm reduction work is to employ workers who have lived experience of whatever is the focus. And what this means is that, though harm reduction work and harm reduction workers are often incredibly effective, both their overall experience of social marginalization and, crucially, organizational practices in their workplaces generally mean they have a very different experiences of those workplaces than the professionalized health and social service workers that tend to comprise the balance of their colleagues.

At a forum for harm reduction workers in Toronto in April 2014, the word "union" was on many participants' lips. There was a lot of real talk about the issues they shared with each other but not with the other folks at their employing organizations. After some preliminary organizing and consulting, a core group of about 30 harm reduction workers held the founding convention for the Toronto Harm Reduction Workers Union in July, as a local of the Industrial Workers of the World (also called the Wobblies), a grassroots union with a long history of being democratic and rabble-rousing. They went public in the fall, and launched a crowdfunding campaign via the GoFundMe platform, and they are busily building their organization. Dodd and Leslie talk with me about harm reduction work, about the union, and about their organizing in defence of harm reduction and harm reduction workers in a hostile political climate.

To learn more about the Toronto Harm Reduction Workers Union, click here. To donate to their GoFundMe campaign, click here.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show in general, visit its website here. You can learn about suggesting topics for future shows here.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Sudbury, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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