Sex worker outreach staff at Maggie’s Toronto unionize

Staff at Canada’s oldest sex worker organization are joining CUPE


Staff at Maggie’s Toronto Sex Worker Action Project are joining a union.

The organization that has been run by sex workers and supporting sex workers since 1986 is joining the Canadian Union Of Public Employees (CUPE).

“This is such big news for the sex worker rights movement on a national level,” says Andrea Werhun, author of Modern Whore and a peer outreach worker at Maggie’s. “It brings us a step closer to recognizing the legitimacy of our labour and the absolute need to decriminalize sex work. If we could have the support of 700,000 CUPE members who agree with us and support us in that venture, that is absolutely huge to our movement.”

CUPE has been welcoming activist groups like added Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights and Egale Canada into the union recently. Maggie’s, founded by sex worker Peggie Miller, Ryan Hotchkiss, Valerie Scott and Chris Bearchell, does advocacy and outreach work, providing harm reduction supplies and creating drop-in and safe spaces for education and community building. During the pandemic, they’ve been hosting low-barrier vaccine clinics at exotic bars like Filmore’s and Zanzibar, a service to both get the jab to the most marginalized demographics and draw attention to the stigmatization face by sex workers.

Werhun along with fellow Maggie’s staffers Jenna Hynes and Jassie Justice spoke to NOW about their work and what it means to have Canada’s oldest sex worker organization become the first in the country, and likely beyond, to unionize following a tumultuous year.

The COVID-19 pandemic had crippled sex workers’ ability to earn a living while leaving government relief programs often remained inaccessible, leading many who work as escorts or on the street to safely pivot online. Then, under the influence of Christian lobby groups like ExodusCry that conflate sex work with human trafficking, credit card companies cut ties with online platform PornHub and appear to be threatening to do the same with OnlyFans.

The latter platform banned and then rescinded its ban on explicit content. The past year provided a harsh reminder how precarious sex work can be, especially, as Justice points out, given sex labour is “constantly criminalized, surveilled and policed.”

“It’s been a rollercoaster,” says Hynes, who has been working behind-the-scenes alongside Werhun and chiefly Justice to get the 13 staff members at Maggie’s – who mostly work as peer outreach workers – unionized.

Now they’re prepping bargaining, putting together proposals for structured labour protections, benefits, job equity and security. And Hynes says they want to find ways to expand those protections across the industry, while furthering the call for decriminalization.

“The work that we do is life-sustaining,” says Justice, who led unionizing effort. “We try to put marginalized, racialized sex workers first. Our union push supports that and supports the goals that Maggie’s has been doing.”

Werhun adds how meaningful it is to have sex workers represented by a labour union just as Canada approaches an election and as pressure from groups like ExodusCry continues to influence online platforms, payment processors and politicians. “We deserve to have a seat at the table,” she says, “especially when it comes to political issues that directly impact our lives. Any changes to the law needs to be in consultation with sex workers themselves.

“It’s more important than ever for people to listen to sex workers talk about their experience of their own work rather than being spoken down to or victimized or pathologized. What this shows is that we absolutely can and we absolutely should be the first to be heard and listened to in any issue that relates to sex work.”

@justsayrad

A previous version of this story stated that Maggie’s was founded by Peggie Miller and Danny Cockerline. The organization was founded by Miller, Ryan Hotchkiss, Valerie Scott and Chris Bearchell. Cockerline came on board later.

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