Drug and alcohol abuse among autoworkers is emerging as a pivotal bargaining issue for Detroit automakers now renegotiating labor contracts with the United Auto Workers.
The lingering problem of employee drug and alcohol abuse costs automakers millions of dollars a year in lost productivity, higher absenteeism, health care and employee turnover.
Detroit automakers, like other companies and communities nationwide, continue to grapple for solutions. But the UAW opposes a common but more rigorous approach to the problem: random drug screening.
“The safety of our employees is a top priority,” said Gordon Kettler, general director of global security for General Motors Corporation. “To help keep our work environment safe, GM has zero tolerance for drug use.”
Automakers have resorted to undercover investigations in the battle against work place drugs.
“We now have a handle on the drug problem, whereas before we really didn’t,” says Gary Henson, senior vice-president of manufacturing for DaimlerChrysler AG.
“The undercover investigations send a very visible message. Our goal is to get to the source—the dealer.”
But sting operations are expensive. It typically costs $7,000 a month to place one agent in a plant for an extended period. A one-year sting can cost up to $750,000.
The UAW prefers to battle the drug problem using employee assistance programs and counseling.
Some experts say such confidential programs are cheaper than drug testing or the other extreme: hiring and training replacement workers.
At GM, UAW workers who participate in the programs recover at a rate twice the national average for other adults.
“Based on recent legislation affecting the small business sector, we anticipate an increase in misinformed employer demands for broad-based drug testing and we must resist such efforts,” the UAW says in its 1999 collective bargaining resolution.
“An effective employee assistance program and a full array of benefits for the treatment of drug or alcohol addiction should be developed and implemented before the introduction of any testing program.”
On individuals, the impact of illegal drug use can be overwhelming. GM, in a recent Department of Labor survey, disclosed that employees who use illegal drugs average 40 days of sick leave a year, compared to 4.5 days for workers who don’t use drugs.
In earlier national bargaining sessions, the UAW has steadfastly resisted management efforts to expand employee drug testing as a deterrent to substance abuse. The union views random drug testing as a major invasion of worker privacy.
In the past, the union has even been leery of joining hands with automakers for anti-drug campaigns. It sees such overtures as a pretext to drug testing. The debate is expected to resurface again during this year’s labor talks following recent drug-related arrests of workers at
In March, police charged 13 workers at GM’s Doraville, GA., minivan assembly plant for selling or possession of illegal drugs.
Following a 15-month undercover investigation, 11 workers at DaimlerChrysler’s Warren truck assembly plant were arrested in April for selling illegal drugs inside the plant. One worker, a male with more than 20 years on the line, was charged with possession with the intent to sell cocaine and heroin. Authorities seized 77 rocks of crack cocaine, 65 packs of heroin and 29 packets of powder cocaine.
Since 1995, police have arrested more than 200 workers on drug-related charges at more than 15 GM, Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler and Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. plants in the United States. The arrests, following months of costly investigations that often begin with tips from plant floor workers, continue to alarm senior auto executives and board members.
Job Applicants Screened
Today, automakers screen only job applicants—hourly and salary—for drug use.
Detroit automakers won’t disclose how many applicants are rejected for drug use, but experts estimate as many as one in five job seekers test positive for using illegal substances.
In some rare cases, following industrial accidents and when an employee returns from an extended absence, plant officials may ask workers to voluntarily undergo a drug test.
The National Association of Manufacturers estimates that drug and alcohol use doubles workplace accidents, absenteeism and health care costs. Nationwide, 7.7 percent of part-time workers and 6.5 percent of full-time workers abused drugs in the last 30 days, says the government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“Drug abuse drives drug trafficking,” says Michael Spencer, president of North American Security Solutions, a Vandalia, Ohio, company that conducts undercover drug investigations for automakers and other private employers. “If you’re selling drugs, you do it in high-traffic areas such as auto factories.”
Macomb County prosecutor Carl Marlinga says the arrests at auto plants reflect that drugs are a lingering problem that won’t go away.
Some experts see it as the dark side of the auto industry’s current prosperity.
Overtime and record profit-sharing checks are fattening pockets, allowing some workers to embrace more expensive drugs.
During a recent undercover investigation at an undisclosed auto plant, agents for Professional Corporate Intelligence made drug purchases that totaled $13,000 in one week, said Michael Garrison, president of Professional Corporate Intelligence, a St. Joseph, Mich., company that conducts undercover drug and theft investigations.
“Every plant has a problem—whether it’s alcohol or illegal drugs,” Garrison said. “Heroin is making a big comeback among workers everywhere,” Spencer said.
Worker Drug Use A Major Concern
* Drug-using employees at GM average 40 days sick leave each year compared to 4.5 days for non-users.
* 13.9 million people, 6 percent of the population over 12 years old, has used drugs in the past 30 days.
* 8.3 million adults, 73 percent of all current drug users aged 18 and older, were employed in 1997.
Highest Rate of Illicit Drug Use
Job—Percent of use
Food service workers—11.2
Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Tips Launch Probes
Acting on tips from workers, automakers have launched investigations in recent years to quell drug trafficking in plants.
April: DaimlerChrysler, Warren truck plant, 11 arrests
March: GM, Doraville, Ga., minivan plant, 13 arrests
February: GM, Saginaw foundry, 11 arrests
January: DaimlerChrysler, Kokomo, Ind., transmission plant, 17 arrests
December 1998: Delphi, Columbus, Ohio, trim, 15 arrests
November 1998: GM, Toledo, transmission plant, six arrests
April 1997: DaimlerChrysler, St. Louis truck/minivan plants, 26 arrests