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‘They’re all going through the same thing’: Roundtable on substance use among tradespeople highlights union support

John Dowd, Painters and Allied Trades District Council 35, talked about his experience with recovery and his work while attending a summit to discuss strategies to support mental health in the workplace on Wednesday.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

John Dowd started using drugs in 2000 when he was 19 and found himself homeless on Massachusetts Avenue and living in shelters such as the Pine Street Inn. His addiction started with OxyContin and turned to heroin a year later.

In retrospect, Dowd, now an organizer of the Painters and Allied Trades District Council 35, said he was a bad brother, a bad son, and a bad father to his daughter during the time he was addicted to drugs and alcohol, but the consequences of tarnishing his relationships did not matter to him. All he cared about was securing his next high.


Speaking at a roundtable discussion on substance use among trade workers at Ironworkers Local 7 headquarters in South Boston on Wednesday, Dowd said he tried many times unsuccessfully to slow down his substance use.

It was not until Dowd had a moment of self-realization that he quit drugs and alcohol all together. When he started getting help, he required discipline to attend every meeting, but the road to recovery became a lot easier when he joined the union and found a support system.

“It all got easier for me to talk about what I’m going through with my union brothers and sisters because they’re all going through the same thing,” Dowd said. “I realized I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.”

Representatives from the US Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration joined members of the Massachusetts Building Trades Recovery Council at Wednesday’s event to discuss how to create supportive work environments for people who struggle with substance use and mental health conditions in the trades — an industry of workers who are disproportionately affected by those issues.

Construction workers have one of the highest rates of substance use disorder compared to other workers, representing 25 percent of fatal opioid overdoses, according to a press release from the Massachusetts Building Trades Unions.


Inside Ironworkers Local 7’s Edward J. Ryan Meeting Hall, 25 organizers from the 62 local trades unions sat in a circle, discussing the impact the MBTU has had on themselves and other tradespeople in New England.

The meeting hall was decorated with canvases of tradespeople hard at work, and signs with mottos that read, “Sobah,” “Principles before personalities,” and “Keep it simple.”

Led by Frank Callahan, president of the MBTU, the round table discussion highlighted the necessity for tradespeople to feel supported to seek mental health and substance use help without fear of being ostracized from their job.

“Because of the tough-guy culture we have in this male dominated industry, we don’t reach out for help like we need to,” Callahan said into the microphone the men passed around to share their experiences and viewpoints.

Frank Callahan, President of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, welcomed attendees to a summit to discuss strategies to support substance use recovery in the trades industries on Wednesday.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Like Dowd, many of the union organizers had struggled with substance use and are now sober. Tom Vitiello, a recovery coach for Teamsters Local 25, said that when he started in the role after becoming sober, he realized that coaching is a lifestyle, not just a job.

Michael Doucette, treasurer of Ironworkers Local 7, shared Vitiello’s sentiment, and said that he and his family have found continued support in the MBTU.

“I would not be the treasurer of this local if I did not get well,” Doucette said. “I use their resources, believe me, and my family uses these resources. I know damn well I could call anyone in this room and they would help me in a second. That’s a fellowship that you can’t get in a pill.”


Michael Doucette, treasurer for Ironworker Local 7, talked about his experience with recovery at Wednesday's summit.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Marc Lyle, a recovery specialist at the Massachusetts Laborers’ Benefit Funds, said that the MBTU has been proactive in working to end the stigma around seeking help for substance use in the trades industries by building relationships and trust with contractors and tradespeople who are struggling.

“We’re not going to cure everybody but we’re going to help people,” Lyle said. “You’re not going to get blackballed by your employer, you’re going to get the help you need, and contractors realize that a healthy workforce is a productive workforce.”

Marc Lyle, recovery specialist at the LEAN Recovery Program, talked about his experience with recovery at Wednesday's summit.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Billy Vietze, a trustee of the MBTRC, said that the Recover Council hopes that the roundtable discussion will bring more awareness to the MBTU on a federal level so that the Department of Labor can help enact legislation to make the environment on job sites a little more conducive to recovery.

In response, representatives from the Department of Labor and OSHA commended the MBTU for leading New England in bringing awareness to supplying substance use resources to tradespeople.

John Towle, deputy chief of staff of the Department of Labor, said that the United States is dealing with a mental health crisis and that creating work environments supportive of recovery efforts is an important step in addressing the crisis.

“It makes a real difference when you’re in a supportive place and not a place where your boss is just going to say ‘clean up your act and get out of here,’” Towle said.


Although a lot of tradespeople utilize the MBTU’s resources, Vietze said that more has to be done to end the stigma.

“A lot of people use these services but not enough so we have to bring more awareness to end the stigma,” Vietze said. “I chose to recover out loud so that my brothers and sisters no longer have to suffer in silence.”

Correction, Sept. 1, 2023: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote from Michael Doucette, treasurer of Ironworkers Local 7. The Globe regrets the error.

Maggie Scales can be reached at Follow her @scales_maggie.