When Marty Walsh hit bottom in his struggle with alcohol in 1995, his fellow building trade union members helped him stay sober.
Now U.S. Labor Secretary, a former Boston mayor, and laborers' union and building trades official who’s been sober for more than 20 years, Walsh joined the Massachusetts Building Trades Council on Sept. 29 to announce a new initiative to ensure that workers get the same support he did.
“These initiatives will help countless workers get access to recovery services, reduce the stigma that prevents people from getting help and advance our fight to end the epidemic of addiction that impacts every part of our country,” Walsh says.
The council has formed the Massachusetts Building Trades Recovery Council and created a new online resource to help union members, or their dependents, who are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction. It includes a weekly schedule of recovery meetings, 24/7 phone numbers for members who need help, and assist with services like treatment and counseling.
Some individual trade unions already had peer support programs in place for members. The new program unifies them into one program and is accompanied by an awareness campaign to inform members of available services.
Jillian Higgins, a fourth-year apprentice at International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103, says her union’s weekly recovery meetings have been a big help to her and others. Her recovery leader works hard getting people into detox and back on the job. “Unions are about strength in numbers, and so is recovery,” she says.
From 2015-2017, the opioid fatality rate for construction workers was seven times the average for all workers in Massachusetts, according to a 2019 study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Construction workers accounted for more than 24% of opioid-related deaths among the state’s working population.
That trend isn’t exclusive to Massachusetts. As ENR previously reported, other studies have shown that construction is one of the occupations most prone to overdose deaths. Issues including addiction, mental health and suicide among workers have increasingly been seeing attention from the industry, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, ENR reported in July.
The issue has also seen attention from union workers in Boston. In 2019, ENR reported on two work site standdowns in Boston during National Recovery Week to recognize workers who died from opioid overdoses.
For those who have gone through recovery or worked with those who have, this issue isn’t new.
The North Atlantic States Regional Carpenters’ Carpenter’s Assistance Program recently celebrated 30 years of helping union carpenters, says Paul Greeley, executive director. It provides an extended care program to allow members and their dependents to get 24-hour residential treatment and helps them transition back to the workforce. He says he hopes the new initiative will help remove “the stigma of addiction.”
Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, says the groups and their leadership have helped create a “culture of recovery among the trades.”
Other union addiction recovery and support programs wrapped into the initiative include the Teamsters Local 25 Referral and Follow-up Team and Laborers Local 429’s Laborers Escaping Addiction Now.
“In the building trades there’s no shame and no stigma, there’s only solidarity,” Callahan says.