News & Politics

Labor’s Loneliest Battles


The best unions fight their toughest battles alone, behind closed doors. Waged one-on-one, member-to-member, they are confrontations aimed at bringing their brothers and sisters back from the edge, helping them conquer alcohol and drug addiction.

Such struggles are not usually associated with traditional bread-and-butter labor issues. But they’re just as much a part of unionism’s original core mission of mutual support, and combatants say there’s as much at stake as on any picket line.

In a quiet and mostly unheralded success story, union-sponsored member assistance programs have become one of the country’s most successful bulwarks against alcoholism and drug abuse. New surveys show that programs in which unionists who are recovering alcoholics or drug addicts help fellow members achieve an average success rate far above that of most professionally run employee assistance programs.

Some of the oldest and most successful programs are in New York, where the transport workers, steamfitters, sandhogs, ironworkers, and other unions have made helping members conquer their own demons a key part of their mission.

“It saves lives; it puts families back together,” explained Don Perks, who runs a member assistance program for the steamfitters union. It was his union, Perks said, that rescued him. “I called my program leader and the son of a gun had me in detox the next day. He’s telling me I got to go in for 30 days. I said, ‘I can’t afford the time off.’ He said, ‘You can’t afford not to. You’re gonna die otherwise.’ Then he visited me in detox and stayed on me for months afterwards.”

“We live in a society where people don’t know how to ask for help. They may be screaming for it, but they don’t know how to ask,” said Mickey Diamond, who launched a member assistance program for sanitation workers in 1969.

“You’re always better off talking to a guy who knows your job and situation,” said Tom Burns of the ironworkers. “Someone who can say, ‘Come on, don’t bullshit me. You think I never wet my pants from drinking? You think I never forgot where I put the car? That don’t make you a bad person.’ That’s how union programs get the success rate they have—that’s what makes them work.”

Last week, Perks, Burns, Diamond, and other leaders of union assistance programs gathered in a conference room at the posh Cornell Club off Fifth Avenue to swap stories and celebrate the success of their movement. They were also there to mark a unique partnership they’ve struck with the Ivy League college and a family of wealthy philanthropists committed to defeating alcoholism among workers.

Since 1991, the R. Brinkley Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related Workplace Studies at Cornell University has been pioneering research on substance abuse in the workplace. The program was founded by Smithers, a multimillionaire banker who was himself a recovered alcoholic and a strong supporter of trade unions. By the time of his death in 1994, Smithers had provided more than $40 million to programs to fight alcoholism, including the Cornell institute. His work has been carried on by his widow, Adelle Smithers Fornaci, who, on Thursday night, sat across the table from a dozen blue-collar union members and leaders grateful for her support.

“‘Brink’ knew that unions had to be involved if workers were to really get help,” she said. “He told the big corporations—General Motors, the steel companies—this can’t work without labor.”

The meeting was initiated after the latest Smithers study, authored by Cornell professors Samuel Bacharach, Peter Bamberger, and William Sonnenstuhl. The academics spent eight years descending airshafts to visit sandhogs digging the city’s water tunnels, climbing high-rise construction projects to talk to ironworkers, and walking through train yards with railworkers.

“Unions have become the most responsive institutions to alcoholism in the country,” said Bacharach, who directs the program. “They’ve done it by going back to their fundamental ideals, by taking care of their members. They know it’s better to do it themselves than have management do it. And they’re doing more about it than most employers. The root of their success is caring.”

Over the past 25 years, some 5000 programs have sprouted at locals throughout the country. Management has also focused increased attention on drinking and drugs—not all of it helpful to workers, said Sonnenstuhl. “Both managed care and drug testing have become dominant aspects, and as a result, companies have looked for shortcuts. One of them is to fire people rather than rehab them,” he said.

Jack Hennessey, a founder of the assistance program for the International Longshoremen’s Association, said managed care has been a dangerous trend for unions. “The managed care comes in, they just don’t know the workplace, they don’t know what your job’s like, they do the diagnosis on the phone; that doesn’t work for most of us,” he said.

Alcoholics and addicts entering treatment programs with the backing of union volunteers had a recovery rate of 70 to 80 percent, as opposed to management-sponsored recovery programs, which have only a 10 percent recovery rate, the Cornell researchers found.

“When you have the workplace involved—when people are looking out for you—you’ve got a better chance to recover; it’s that simple,” said Sonnenstuhl.

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.

“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

Most Popular