GM management, labor work to stop drug abuse

February 02, 1991|By John Lippert | John Lippert,Knight-Ridder News Service

DETROIT -- A confidential report delivered to General Motors Corp. and United Auto Workers officials just over a year ago startled them with these harsh estimates: 31 percent of GM's blue-collar workers and 20 percent of white-collar workers were seriously impaired by or under the influence of alcohol and other drugs while at work.

That report, from consulting firm McKinsey and Co., helped propel GM and the union into a major overhaul of programs to fight drugs and booze. Referral and treatment programs were expanded, but harsher discipline is now in store for workers who value their habits more than they do their jobs.

The Detroit Free Press recently obtained a copy of the McKinsey report. Along with interviews of GM and UAW officials, shop floor workers, and industry experts, it reveals the enormity of the challenge facing the largest U.S. manufacturer and its most progressive union as they battle a critical threat to productivity.

Substance abuse costs GM up to $1.5 billion annually, said the report, yet often is tolerated by company officials trying too hard to maintain production, and union officials trying too hard to protect members.

To make Employee Assistance Programs more effective, GM and the UAW negotiated changes in the three-year labor contract signed last October. GM and the UAW believe these changes, plus the retirement of workers hired during the drug-oriented 1960s, mean substance abuse will drop in the 1990s. Still, they say, a wider mobilization is needed.

"Substance abuse is not limited to any particular company or industry. It is a societal problem, and, as such, is reflected wherever people live and work throughout our country," said Richard O'Brien, GM's vice president of industrial relations.

"The task facing all businesses and organizations is to gain a clear understanding of the problem, proceed with tact and sensitivity, and enlist the aid of all employees to drive drugs out of the work place."

GM's anti-drug program, Mr. O'Brien said, "is widely recognized as a model."

The report was presented to GM in October-December 1989. New York-based McKinsey volunteered to do the report and wasn't paid for it, but the management consulting firm works with GM on many other subjects. A McKinsey spokesman declined comment.

Dan Lanier, the GM executive who co-directs the program with the UAW, said substance abuse is no worse at GM than in the U.S. economy generally.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse, a government agency, estimated in 1990 that 24.4 percent of Americans employed full-time had used illicit drugs in the past year, and 10.5 percent had used them in the past month -- enough to qualify them as frequent users. No comparable figures were available on alcohol use.

In 1987, the institute said that between 10 percent and 23 percent of all U.S. workers use dangerous drugs on the job.

McKinsey figures for GM were higher, Mr. Lanier said, because they were estimates based on interviews and a survey of hundreds of in-plant supervisors, union representatives, medical directors and EAP administrators. "They talked to people on the floor who deal with this every day, and that's their perspective," Mr. Lanier said.

Michael Crenshaw is a GM worker who has emerged from a life inwhich drugs dominated everything, including his hours at work.

He started smoking marijuana in 1968, at age 18, while serving the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He returned home, hired into the

now-closed Fleetwood plant in Detroit, and started consuming large quantities of wine, amphetamines and heroin.

"The rules were very simple," he said. "As long as I was functional, it didn't matter if I was high or not."

By the mid-1980s, Mr. Crenshaw was spending $600 a week on cocaine, marijuana and liquor. After an eight-hour day at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, also known as Poletown, he'd spend another eight hours buying and taking drugs. When he collapsed in bed at 11 p.m., he'd take Valium, then fall into a "trance-like sleep, where I wasn't asleep and yet I wasn't awake." In three years, he wrecked two cars and got a ticket for drunken driving which, with court costs, set him back $3,500.

After persistent urging by his wife, Laura, he entered a treatment center and joined the Poletown EAP. Now 40, he's been straight for two years, and helps run the program. "Coke turns you into a zombie," he said. "Now I get pleasure from having enough money to take my kids to McDonald's, from the love and affection I'm able to give and receive, from living life at every level."

Few GM workers have experienced problems as severe as Mr. Crenshaw's. Still, according to the McKinsey report, substance abuse at GM is severe, widespread and growing, with illegal drugs "widely available in most plants." In other findings, the report said the problem:

* Appears in different regions of the country, and in big communities and small towns, at about the same rate.

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