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Zero Tolerance in the Workplace

Alcohol as Metaphor

by DAVID MACARAY

Some years ago, when I was a union rep with the West Coast papermakers, I was called in on a DOJ case (drunk on the job) to represent an employee who was facing termination.  While DOJs were by no means common, they weren’t exactly rare, either. 

Alcohol cases vary dramatically in how they’re perceived.  If a professor or judge shows up drunk, it’s amazing how sympathetic people can be.  They become almost maternal in their concern.  Someone this accomplished, this educated, doing something this disgraceful can mean only one thing: the man is “fighting personal demons.”  A drunken judge?  Oh my god, there has to be some tragic human story to explain it.

But let it be a factory worker who’s been drinking, and the guy is regarded as a low-class degenerate who needs to be fired immediately.  But what about this man’s “personal demons”?  Screw his personal demons.  He’s fired.  Get him the hell out of here.

The employee in question (“Fred”) was a middle-aged man, with over twenty years of service, working the nightshift as an operator of a high-speed packaging machine.  While not staggering, fall-down drunk, he was, despite his denials, obviously under the influence.  He smelled of alcohol, his eyes were shot, and he was slurring his words. 

Although a company can’t force a blood test—and a refusal doesn’t automatically mean you’re guilty—a refusal will definitely hurt your chances in arbitration.  Not surprisingly, Fred declined to take a blood test.  But when they asked him if he’d been drinking, he candidly told them he’d had “a few beers” before leaving for work, but insisted he wasn’t drunk.  That confession, by itself, was grounds for discharge.

So they fired him.  A security guard accompanied him to his locker to collect his gear, which they stuffed into a lawn bag, and the company called his wife to come pick him up.  Fred and I and the company nurse (who’d been summoned by Human Resources) stood at the plant entrance, awaiting his ride.  Not knowing what to say, the three of us barely spoke.  Minutes went by without anyone saying a word. 

When his wife arrived, Fred had already sobered up sufficiently to appreciate what had just happened, and when he climbed unsteadily into the passenger seat, he looked about as melancholy and godforsaken as any 56-year old unemployed man could look.  It was a pitiful sight.  This was 1988.

Union veterans have told me that during the 1960s and ‘70s, the company treated DOJs much differently. Although drinking was definitely frowned upon—not only by management, but by the union, as well—instead of being automatically fired, employees suspected of being intoxicated were often removed from the factory floor and sent home without incident. 

Because the supervisors, technically, didn’t have the authority to mitigate the punishment (i.e., issue a write-up or suspension in lieu of a discharge), but didn’t want to see the guy lose his job, they simply got him out of there as quickly as they could and pretended it never happened.

While they usually called a family member to come get him, it wasn’t unheard of to have an agreeable shop steward drive him home; and in some cases—if he lived close by or didn’t appear too drunk—the guy was actually permitted to drive himself.  Granted, letting him drive was a dumb move, but the gesture was indicative of the sensibilities that existed a generation ago.

By the time I got involved, everything had changed.  The term “zero tolerance” was already on the horizon, and employees suspected of being under the influence were treated with a weird mixture of competing attitudes:  utter revulsion and disgust mixed with the brusque, impersonal professionalism of a triage unit.

Consider the contrast:  In 1971, the facility’s plant manager was himself an alcoholic.  Once, after a night of boozing, he challenged the president of the union to a fistfight in a local bar, and had to be restrained by subordinates.  It was a famous incident, one that union officials still gleefully recount.  Compare this with 1988, when the plant manager was an abstemious Christian fundamentalist who held regular prayer sessions in his office.  True.
 
In alcohol cases, HR always used the same two arguments.  First, they said a drunk man working around moving equipment was a safety hazard, not only to himself, but to his fellow employees (which was probably true).  “We’re firing him for your benefit, not ours,” is what they liked to say.

And second, when the union requested that he be suspended and placed in rehab instead of fired (because crew safety, by their own admission, was their chief concern), they went Hobbesian on us.  They argued that suspending rather than firing him would be an invitation to everyone in the facility to have one drunken incident “free of charge,” without fear of losing their job, a conclusion so bizarre and cynical, only a certified HR creature could have come up with it.

No one is condoning drunkenness or denying that alcoholism is a serious and debilitating disease.  No one is saying it’s cool to drink on the job.  The damage alcohol has done to individuals and families is a matter of record.  I’m simply using alcohol as a metaphor, showing that drinking in the workplace has been treated differently in different contexts and in different eras, and suggesting that those differences speak to a larger issue.

A generation ago, most front-line supervisors were former hourly employees who’d been promoted into management, and most of their parents had been blue-collar workers.  They were sympathetic to working people.  This all changed in the 1980s, when front-line supervision was given over to young college grads who not only viewed workers as “factory apes,” but whose parents were typically white-collar.

A generation ago, there was also a greater sense of community.  While hourly and salaried workers obviously differed in their respective job skills and backgrounds, in a broader sense, they perceived themselves as being positioned on the same axis, as points along the same continuum. 

Accordingly, top executives made salaries in the range of 15-20 times what the hourly workers made, not the 200-400 times it is today.  Company executives in the 1970s were regarded as just that—well-compensated businessmen—not as corporate mandarins who flew in private jets and lived in gated mansions.

Corny as it sounds, these blue-collar folks and their bosses had a grudging respect for each other.  Yes, they battled and bickered and embarrassed themselves, and yes, there were grievances and strikes; but they also genuinely engaged each other.  There were joint union-management bowling leagues, softball games, company picnics, talent shows, and Christmas parties.  Adversaries or not, there was a connection.

Most of that stuff was ancient history by the time I became a rep.  Moreover, instead of being the adversaries of old, the company assured us that management and the union were now on the same team.  “Why should we beat our heads against the wall, when we both want the same thing?” an HR director once asked me. 

Of course, that was a lie; union and management didn’t want the same thing.  Working people wanted a larger slice of the pie, and the company wanted to give them a smaller slice.  Pretending that both sides wanted the same thing was a cruel hoax.  Predictably, once the union was embraced as “teammates,” wages began slipping, benefits began declining, and work rules began stiffening.

What happened next was hideous.  Loyal employees woke up one morning to find that not only had their standard of living been hollowed-out, but that they had been stripped of their dignity as workers.  Instead of being proud union warriors, they were now palace eunuchs. 

The castration had been a three-step process.  Initially put in motion by the Taft-Hartley Act, way back in 1947, it was followed, sequentially, by policies of the Reagan and Clinton administrations, and culminated in the “team-building” philosophy of corporate HR.  Since then, of course, everything has gotten worse.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net