Vancouver drug users employed in overdose response vote on whether to join a union

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      It’s not very often that the labour movement receives much attention these days. In both Canada and the United States, unions are the weakest they’ve been in a generation and the so-called gig economy is only growing stronger.

      Today (March 9) in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, however, there’s an important vote underway that could see a unique group of workers join an influential Metro Vancouver union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 1004 (CUPE 1004).

      The group in question is peers, a term the B.C. government and partners use to describe past and present drug users who work in harm-reduction programs such as needle exchange and overdose response.

      There are hundreds of such employees in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The majority of them work for PHS Community Services Society (PHSCSS), a nonprofit organization that pioneered peer employment beginning in the late-1990s.

      A CUPE BC media release says it's long overdue for peers’ to join a union.

      “I have worked for the PHS for 18 years and this is a long time coming,” Dave Apsey, a peer supervisor at PHSCSS’s Washington Needle Depot, said quoted in a media release. “I’m voting yes to join the union because I want the same protection as other PHS employees.”

      PHSCSS has employed peers at North America’s first supervised-injection facility, Insite, since it opened in 2003, and at other select projects like the Washington Needle Depot, a syringe-exchange program that operates out of the ground floor of a PHSCSS housing project, since even earlier. The number of peers working for PHSCSS and similar nonprofits increased dramatically in 2016, when the provincial government and partners expanded their response to the overdose crisis and placed peers in many of the new harm-reduction positions that became available with that expansion.

      Peers traditionally receive lower pay than full-time employees but also receive flexibility on scheduling and greater leniency for missing shifts and similar actions for which a private company's employees might be punished. The roles peers play in overdose response are usually on the front lines of the crisis, staffing injection sites and patrolling Downtown Eastside alleys with the overdose-reversal drug naloxone. They are high-stress positions that routinely involve decisions with life-or-death consequences.

      “Peer employees of PHS are instrumental in saving lives in the face of drug overdose deaths and the opioid crisis,” CUPE BC’s media release reads. “They provide vital community services at the InSite supervised injection site and other overdose prevention sites in the DTES.”

      PHS Community Services Society employees peers to take overdose response into alleys around Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
      Travis Lupick

      PHSCSS is challenging union certification for peers. The organization declined to comment for this story.

      CUPE 1004 president Andrew Ledger is quoted in the union's release stating that he expects the vote’s ballots to be counted soon.

      “It is the Charter Right of all Canadian workers to join a union, and peers certainly deserve the same union protections other PHS employee members have,” Ledger said.