The largest conference in the world on the AIDS epidemic that has killed more than 25 million people has attracted labour representatives from dozens of countries to a pre-conference meeting in Toronto this weekend.
Hosted by the Canadian Labour Congress, the “Labour Forum” is a warm-up meeting in advance of the week-long international conference “AIDS 2006.”
A who’s who representing trade unions from a dozen African countries; from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Jordan in south Asia and the Middle East; along with other labour representatives from the United Kingdom and Belgium as well. Representatives also came from across Canada, including from CUPE, to share first-hand experiences, insights and strategies in their common struggle against the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Representatives from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), Public Services International (PSI), the International Labour Organization (ILO), American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (AFL-CIO) Solidarity Centre all shared their analyses and program information.
Latin America came too, with Victor Baez Mosqueira from the Inter-American Regional Labor Organization (ORIT) providing Day One closing remarks on behalf of Costa Rican and Argentinian trade unions.
If there was a single key message, it was this: Women bear the brunt of this disease, caring for the sick and dying, caring for the surviving family members, and suffering among the highest rates of infection.
The battle against HIV/AIDS cannot be won without recognizing this simple fact, presenter after presenter emphasized. Gender equality is a necessary step in winning this long-term battle.
This point was reinforced by the United Nation’s special envoy for AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis, who made an appearance at the opening reception on Friday night. However, this point was repeated and hammered home by forum participants throughout the weekend.
CUPE’s delegation included front-line workers in HIV/AIDS education and care, and activists from CUPE’s national pink triangle and international solidarity committees.
Fred Hahn, secretary-treasurer of CUPE Ontario and chair of the panel on Policy and Advocacy, said “It was fascinating, and disheartening. So much frustration by those in attendance that labour centrals and national unions are not truly taking seriously the work that must be done on HIV/AIDS.”
“The language we use and how we talk about AIDS is very important,” Hahn added . “It’s not people suffering with AIDS. It’s not people with AIDS over there, and we in unions are over here. It’s that we are all affected!”
“Given the evidence that new HIV infection rates are going up across the board, I think it would be important to focus on an HIV/AIDS theme at our next equality forum for Convention 2007,” Gerry Lavallee, of CUPE’s Air Canada Component, Local 4092 said .
“It would be a great venue for our women’s committee, national pink triangle committee, national aboriginal council, rainbow committee and other stakeholders, to have a frank discussion about HIV/AIDS, safer sex practices, sex work, education and human rights with other CUPE members.”
Katherine Nastovski, chair of CUPE’s International Solidarity Committee, was struck by the importance of distinguishing between solidarity and charity particularly when it comes to the fight against HIV/AIDS.
“This disease not only effects people in Africa or gay men, as is commonly believed. It is an ongoing problem in Canada, particularly among Aboriginal women and people of colour,” she said.
“It is all of our struggle. We have a tremendous amount to learn from the strategies of our partners in the South, as well as a responsibility to share resources and help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.”
CUPE delegates raised concerns in support of safe injection sites in Vancouver or needle exchange programs across the country. Some levels of government wish to cut back or even eliminate the first and only safe injection site in Vancouver. However, studies show that unsafe intravenous drug use is one of the ways HIV spreads.
“We have a lot of members who work in this area doing front-line prevention education and support around these issues in communities, like I do,” said Julia Barnett, a member of CUPE 79 in Toronto who works in public health.
“Those people need to be brought on board, to share our expertise. We need better coordination and improved communication internally,” added Barnett, also an expert on education and training around HIV/AIDS prevention and care. “We have the capacity to educate our own members and the public, to make the connection between strong public services, privatization, fighting poverty, fighting HIV/AIDS and the health and well-being of our members and our communities.“
Rena Fernando agreed with that assessment. She’s coordinator of Mozambique’s gender and AIDS project. She said that privatization of essential services in her country has been an impediment in the struggle against HIV/AIDS.
Delegates were very clear that solidarity work on HIV AIDS by unions in the North cannot be ad hoc. Planning is essential. Relationships need to be consistent to be effective. Union initiatives require research, policy, advocacy, education and training, both at home and in developing countries. Over and over the delegates stressed the central role of education in combating HIV/AIDS.
CLC vice-president Marie Clarke Walker, also a CUPE member, chaired the panel on international solidarity. “There is no doubt that HIV/AIDS is a working-class disease,” she said, “and therefore it is imperative that we as a labour movement address it and develop strategies to deal with it in a holistic and global manner.”
CLC secretary-treasurer Hassan Yussuf concluded the proceedings with a commitment to triple the existing CLC AIDS Fund within three years, to make possible the formation of an international network of labour, allied in the struggle against HIV/AIDS.
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