Drug Tests Followed by Steelworker Suicides: How Should a Union Defend Members?

Steelworkers and their families protested last year as a layoff at the Granite City works outside St. Louis dragged on for months. When members finally got back to work, management enforced a new drug-test policy that's wreaked havoc. Photo: USW Local 1899.

When U.S. Steel began taking down the cranes in late 2008 and backing out the “yukes,” giant dump trucks with 12-foot-tall tires, steelworkers at the Granite City Works outside St. Louis hunkered down for a long idle.

Demand for their steel rolls and slabs had crashed along with the market for cars and refrigerators they were shaped into. Things looked so bad the company held seminars on job-hunting.

Sure enough, the layoff lasted six months. As the economy started to show signs of life last June, about half the plant’s 1,800 members of Steelworkers Locals 1899, 50, and 68 were recalled. The rest trickled in over a period of months as production slowly restarted.

What management had waiting for them has wreaked havoc on a sizeable minority of workers, damaged the union’s credibility among the ranks, and provoked at least one member to take his own life.


U.S. Steel took over the Granite City works in 2003, and brought along strict rules to ensure the workplace was free of drugs and alcohol. Violators were forced onto an intensive “last-chance” agreement, where workers are randomly called for monthly testing for three years, during weekends and vacations as well as working hours.

Bob Dragich, a 25-year veteran, said management’s monitoring of drug and alcohol use was nothing new. After previous recalls from layoff, and immediately following any workplace incident, workers had to submit to urine tests.

But U.S. Steel forced workers returning after the 2009 layoff to give a hair sample, which can show the presence of a substance ingested months previously.


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Dragich says about 150 workers tested positive. Dan Simmons, Local 1899 president, said 67 workers were forced into “last-chance” agreements. Any presence of drugs—or alcohol—during subsequent tests meant discharge.

About 10 workers were quickly fired, Dragich says. One of them, craneman David Doris, killed himself.

Two other USW members at Granite City have committed suicide since June. Simmons says neither of them was caught in the substance-testing sting. Dragich disputes that.

Both agree that depression, compounded by inferior work assignments after recall, contributed.

Dragich—who says his test came back clean—is furious that the union didn’t confront the company over the hair tests. He alleges an officer knew about the company’s plans ahead of time but didn’t warn members. He adds there’s no specific language requiring a hair test in the contract.

“They left us out in the cold,” Dragich said. “It was a massacre.”



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Simmons counters that the local took a petition against the hair testing to the gates almost immediately, gathering between 600 and 700 signatures, and presented a group grievance on behalf of the last-chancers.

Some members, tipped to the new rules, resorted to shaving their entire bodies—earning them automatic weekly urine tests until enough hair grew back for the company to clip.

Simmons said the hair tests had an unsettling racial impact, too: proportionally more Black members were hit than white.

Douglas Rollins, a University of Utah pharmacology researcher who studies how drugs bind to hair, says racial disparities could result because people with black hair—whatever their skin color—retain more drug residue in their hair.

U.S. Steel has halted hair tests for now, Simmons says, and the grievance finally went to an arbitrator in mid-February.

The local’s held special meetings for members on last-chance agreements, Simmons says, but hasn’t led rallies or delegations to the boss. The union didn’t speed the hair test dispute to the arbitrator. The company wouldn’t fast-track it unless the union separated the test from the last-chance agreements. The union, wanting members’ records expunged, refused.


Some members blame the last-chancers for bringing the problem on themselves.

Simmons said it’s not a position he shares. “What a guy did nine months ago while he was off work or on layoff,” he said, “is none of their business.”

But the company drove a wedge between workers, making it difficult to defend them, much less lead aggressive actions, said Local 1899 VP Phil Chism.

When members got nabbed, it was either sign the last-chance agreement or refuse, get fired, and wait for a discharge arbitration—while the company cut off health insurance, fought the unemployment claim, and denied supplemental benefits.

“I don’t know what else to call it besides blackmail,” Chism said.

Dragich is disgusted that the union chose to submit to the lawyered layers of the grievance procedure while members like Doris were panic-stricken.

“It used to be we had a say,” he said. “Now with U.S. Steel, their answer is arbitration for everything. I don’t think his suicide is going to be the last.”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #372, March 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.


DefMillwright (not verified) | 03/19/10

"When I returned they ordered me to give an observed urine sample and because they did not have a nurse of the same sex on staff a person who was not medically trained would be directly observing me."

Good for you for refusing. The taking of a sample of any kind, be it urine, blood, hair, etc for testing, especially a drug screen, should ONLY be done by a medical profession specifically trained in the collection of samples. If they did not have a same sex medical person available, they should have rescheduled the test.

"To make matters worse the entire conversations during both events took place in room full of other employees of different trades which was a blatant violation of my HIPAA rights."

It was not a violation of your HIPAA rights, as HIPAA only applies to entities who recieve payments from Medicare, however it could and probably was a violation of your own company's policies reguarding your medical records. I would definately check into that because if it were, a case could be made in court for the violation and compensation. If nothing else, it may save the next person from having to go through the same senario you were put through.

Sparky76 (not verified) | 03/10/10

I support drug testing during post accident investigations but only if it is done accurately and with guaranteed privacy. Pre-employment and random drug testing are invasions of our privacy and serve no purpose other than to provide private information which can be used to encourage discrimination. I am currently in the grievance process against TVA due to the fact that they refused a sample I had given while running a fever of 101.5. TVA refused on the grounds that the urine specimen was out of their acceptable temperature range. A TVA nurse confirmed my temp and my steward made them send me home sick. When I returned they ordered me to give an observed urine sample and because they did not have a nurse of the same sex on staff a person who was not medically trained would be directly observing me. This was too much for me and as a victim sexual abuse I could not submit to this degradation and refused. They threatened me with a lifetime ban from all TVA projects and upon further refusal I was escorted off the jobsite. To make matters worse the entire conversations during both events took place in room full of other employees of different trades which was a blatant violation of my HIPAA rights.

These events have lead to me researching drug testing methods and standards over the past few months only to discover how little drug screens have to do with actual on the job safety or productivity. With current inflation of health care costs unscrupulous employers are able to weed out employees with expensive health issues. Heart, pain and psychiatric medications are tested for under the guise of job safety. It has never been proven that drug testing has lowered on the job accident rates and strong arguments have been made that certain drugs like methamphetamines and caffeine can actually increase productivity. The accuracy of drug screens has been grossly exaggerated. Aside from blood alcohol tests no drug screens are accurate enough to determine weather or not the substances were ingested on company time or recently enough to impede a workers performance. Until these issues are addressed no one that undergoes drug screening is safe.