Opioids now kill over 100 Americans every day. In a single year, opioids kill more Americans than died in the entire Vietnam and Iraq Wars. And while the underground drug trade is fueling this epidemic of medicalized self-destruction, the flow of black-market opioids is inseparable from its above-ground counterpart—the pharmaceutical companies that peddle the legal and FDA-approved pain killers like OxyContin and Vicodin. And now workers on the front lines of this crisis are challenging the nation’s biggest pushers to stop pumping deadly drugs into their neighborhoods.
The Teamsters, whose members have struggled with the crisis of both illegal and legal opioid abuse, are wielding their shareholder power to link Big Pharma’s primary distributors to the logistical chain swelling opioid markets to a breaking point. At the August shareholder’s meeting of pharmaceutical wholesaler McKesson, the union leadership, as direct share owners, called for reforms to the company’s supply-chain monitoring and rejected a pay raise for its CEO. They have issued a similar call before the board of drug giant AmerisourceBergen, demanding that the company investigate its sales practices and review its executive-compensation levels.
The Teamsters might be known for a tough blue-collar image, but members have lately been sharing heart-rending stories of how the trauma of opioid addiction has consumed their families. Many of the Rust Belt strongholds where their locals have community ties have seen a surge of overdose deaths, along with the joblessness and dwindling treatment resources that deepen their exposure to the crisis. The Teamsters see the massive opioid death toll as having structural roots in the overprescribing of painkillers. A profit-driven medical industry has for years been feeding medication dependencies that often rapidly spiral into illegal heroin use. The pattern of induced dependency is perpetuated by a severe lack of comprehensive, community-based social supports for treatment, preventive care, and basic economic aid in many struggling working-class regions.
The union’s critiques parallel legal actions by states and counties against pharmaceutical distributors, which accuse the industry of flooding the markets that supply painkiller addiction and overburdening Medicaid-funded treatment programs. McKesson recently reached a $150 million settlement with the Justice Department over its allegedly systematic failure to report suspicious mass deliveries (on top of a $13.25 million civil penalty in 2008 over similar regulatory violations).