DETROIT—Few of the hundreds of UAW members gathered this month at Detroit's Cobo Center knew the painful truth. Rory Gamble, one of their leaders, had buried his granddaughter weeks earlier.
"Tori died in January," said Gamble, a union vice president who is lead negotiator with Ford Motor Co. A nursing student, "she was 21 years old, at a party with some friends. She was exposed to something laced with fentanyl. She was beautiful and now she's gone."
He added, "I grew up in southwest Detroit. I've been exposed personally and socially and just in my entire life to the problems of substance abuse as a whole."
But the painkiller and heroin addiction epidemic plaguing the industrial heartland is different. "Thing here with opioid abuse is, it's so deadly. With the introduction of fentanyl, it's gone from a bad habit to a deadly habit with staggering numbers," he said.
Well before Tori's death, Gamble had been helping lead efforts to assist UAW members fight the impact of opioid addiction on factory workers, their families and their communities.
So, as the UAW negotiates wages, health care, job security and other traditional issues this summer with Detroit automakers, it also has identified combating opioids as a key priority in the upcoming collective bargaining talks this year.
Manufacturing employees are exposed to injury from standing for long periods of time, repetitive motion and heavy lifting, and they seek treatment, which in the past two decades has increasingly come in the form of prescription painkillers containing codeine, oxycodone (such as OxyContin) or hydrocodone (such as Vicodin). Those pills can quickly result in addiction, in time leading some people to seek cheaper, more accessible heroin. Heroin today often is laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than morphine.
The union already is training its workers to respond to overdoses, and some have saved lives in factories by administering Narcan, a brand name for naloxone, a drug that can halt ODs. A pain treatment pilot study is underway examining alternatives to prescriptions, the union said.
"We must also find ways to support members who are struggling with one of today's biggest problems: opioid addiction. Whether the member is battling addiction directly, or with family members, we must acknowledge that this is a pervasive and damaging problem, and we need to address it in our contracts," reads a resolution on page 7 of the handbook cited at the UAW's special bargaining convention March 11-13 at Cobo Center.
"Opioid addiction is a shockingly common problem, and it can affect anyone, including highly functioning and successful workers," the handbook says. "Addiction takes a massive toll on workers, their families, communities and our society."
No one says the opioid epidemic affects the auto industry any more than any other sector of society. But, said Gamble, "our family, friends and co-workers injured on the job or in athletics or even a household accident find themselves in the grip of opioid addiction."
Darlene Owens, director of substance use disorders initiatives for Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, confirmed that her division works with the UAW.
She said she has had three training sessions with Ford UAW workers over the past six months. "We left Narcan kits with their staff. It looks a little like a first aid kit. I carry a kit with me at all times. I keep mine in my car."
GM UAW was scheduled for training this month, too.
"We train at schools, universities, health settings, a lot of churches, senior citizen complexes, law enforcement. We train every week and we're booked up to September 2019," Owens said. "Rock Financial has stepped up big time."