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by Robin Silverman

Labour fights AIDS.” That’s the caption on the sticker I pick up at the World AIDS Conference. drawing attention to a discussion about a trade union response to HIV/AIDS and the workplace in Swaziland and Lesotho. I’m a member of CUPE Local 2998 in Toronto, and my employer sent me as a delegate to the XVI International AIDS conference. I’m sure my employer won’t mind that the first event I attend is about unions.

The Solidarity Centre, International Labour Organization (ILO) and activists from other trade union have, I’m happy to say, taken an active role by providing assistance to bargaining unit workers in the South who are infected and affected by the AIDS pandemic. Their objectives, laid out in their printed materials, are to help build the capacity of unions in the most affected areas, advocate on issues related to infection, and provide prevention education. Workers’ jobs are threatened by the stigma attached to a HIV-positve test result; a problem in Canada not so long. I learn that unions like CUPE can also take an active role in framing a national response to the worldwide issues of HIV/AIDS. Providing funds is GREAT, but we can go further.

HIV-positive workers in the South are not given promotions, are excluded from training opportunities, are shut out of the workforce in the first place, face firings and the loss of jobs if discovered, and denied access to the medication that could extend - even save - their lives. ILO publications state that 42 million people are living with HIV-AIDS, and that 9 out of every 10 are adults in their productive years. Established unions in the West are assisting local unions in the textile trade. Public Service employees in the South deserve the same type of support. CUPE lets get in there and help them organize!

CUPE also has an important role to play here in Canada. On Wednesday several CUPE members lent their support to Vancouver’s Insite, Canada’s only safe use site for injection drug users. We managed to close down Bloor Street, one downtown Toronto’s main streets, for two blocks from Church Street all the way to Bay Street. At precisely 1:05 P.M., we stepped off the curb at every intersection along this route to block traffic for 2 minutes. Holding a banner that said “100’s will die,” we silently made our point and then peacefully left the scene. While only about a hundred or so protesters, we still brought traffic at one of Toronto’s busiest intersections to a complete halt.

Insite has saved lives by providing a safe injection site and reducing the spread of HIV-AIDS throughout the community. The site has saved lives from overdoses, reduced the transmission of Hepetitis C, increased referrals to detox and treatment facilities, decreased public injection and publicly discarded syringes. 250,000 safe injections have taken place at this facility, and the Harper government is threatening its work.

The federal government provides an exemption from criminal prosecution, required for the continued operation of this hugely successful and much recognized experiment, and that exemption is about to expire. I am asking all CUPE members to contact their individual MPs to demand support for this site. Sites like this offer a non-judgmental approach that helps save lives, rebuild families and communities. If you are not sure about how you feel about substance use, take a minute and add up how much coffee you’ve been drinking today. Then, go cold turkey for the rest of the day.

Finally, remember that many of the people on the street, or substance use involved, probably belonged to a union just like you.

In Sol,
Robin Silverman