Labor’s Loneliest Battles

New Survey Finds Union Self-Help Programs Point Way in Addiction Struggles

After a 10-year break due to a change in its medical benefits plan, the city's 36,000-member Transport Workers Union reopened its assistance program in the late 1980s. "Members were lined up down the halls," said Ted Mapes, program director. "People are referred by shop stewards or supervisors. And we have teams out in the field, checking on how people are doing."

Ed Watt, newly elected secretary-treasurer of the TWU, said the program serves as an antidote to what he called "the mean-spiritedness that pervades our society these days. It calls for kicking the weakest link. Many times, the members in our programs are the weakest links, and we're the only ones going to help them."

In their new book, Mutual Aid and Union Renewal, the Cornell researchers chronicle a railworkers program adopted in the 1980s. Workers dubbed it "Operation: Redblock" after the red signals that alert engineers to danger. There is a long history of heavy drinking in the ranks of railworkers, who do tough physical labor and often spend long periods away from home. But despite a management-sponsored assistance program and draconian rules about drinking on the job, studies found that almost 23 percent of operating personnel were problem drinkers and at least 5 percent reported to work drunk at least once a year.

Samuel Bacharach (left) and William Sonnenstuhl of the Smithers Institute
photo: Cary Conover
Samuel Bacharach (left) and William Sonnenstuhl of the Smithers Institute

"Operation: Redblock" was conceived by a Union Pacific brakeman who reasoned that the stiff punishment of those caught drinking made other workers complicit in alcoholism, since they often covered up for violators. The program allowed the union to steer members into treatment programs rather than have them face immediate discharge. A railworker under the influence is allowed an excused absence from work, providing he or she submits to review by a panel of other workers who may determine treatment is required.

A member of the Redblock committee told the Cornell team, "You don't see [the drinking] anymore. You don't see it period. . . . I knew an old switchman one time that laid in the shanty for three months drunk. They put his name on the ticket and he got paid every day. . . . They just left him back there. That can't happen today."

Research assistance: James Wong

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