Opinion: Opioid crisis a UAW negotiation priority

Gary Jones

Do you have a prescription for painkillers? If you don’t, you know someone who does. One in three Americans has a prescription for opioids, and prescriptions have almost quadrupled in the past decade.

When you mention collective bargaining, I’m sure that opioid prescriptions and addiction are not what spring to mind. Throughout its history, though, the UAW has made the well-being of its members, their families and their communities as a top priority.

Containers depicting OxyContin prescription pill bottles rest on the ground as protesters demonstrate against the FDA's opioid prescription drug approval practices, Friday, April 5, 2019, in front of the Department of Health and Human Services' headquarters in Washington.

Our focus has always been comprehensive and remains so — which means that the UAW addresses the challenges that our workers face, and right now one of the biggest challenges is the growing opioid crisis. There are now more deaths from drugs — two-thirds of which are opioid related — than from car accidents or gun violence in the United States.

So as we head to the bargaining table this summer, this is one of our key topics. Opioid addiction can show up anywhere. This addiction is taking a massive toll on workers, families and our communities.

Unfortunately, those in jobs like manufacturing and automotive can have a higher rate of injury than other fields; between standing for long periods, repetitive motions and heavy lifting, the work can create the very type of situation where a doctor is likely to prescribe a painkiller.

So as we negotiate, the UAW will work toward shining light on this challenge and finding innovative solutions to ensure that our brothers and sisters, and their families, have the help they need.

This will include the creation of “Optimal Care Plans” for the prevention of dependency and addiction caused by chronic use of opioids and other painkillers. We will work to increase education and awareness, enhance and expand treatment options and programs, and boost training for worksite populations.

But most importantly, for workers who are struggling with addiction, we will negotiate for treatment rather than punishment. What can fight addiction? More education, awareness and support for workers. Addiction is a disease. It can and should be treated like one.

Opioid addiction isn’t happening to strangers; it is happening to our UAW family, to our children, our neighbors, our community members and our brothers and sisters. We promise to leave no member behind as we battle this crisis together.

Gary Jones is president of UAW International Union.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.