Mill Story #37: Thanksgiving Eve at the County Jail

October 2, 2016
By Ike Gittlen

One of the all to frequent issues that Union Reps face are difficulties our members have with drug and alcohol abuse. In spite of the stereotype of the hard drinking steelworker, I don’t think we have any corner on the market. But you can’t hide being high in a steel mill and when a co-worker isn’t sober; it endangers both themselves and their co-workers who depend on them for safety.

Our Steelworker Local Union negotiated a progressive D&A contract section that provided a jointly selected D&A assessment and treatment provider for our members. Generally, if a member followed the treatment program that the provider recommended, they would get an opportunity to return to work.

This story is about a member we’ll call Bobby. He was young, single, cocky and had a known problem with alcohol. Right before Thanksgiving, he was jailed for a DUI. As a repeat offender, he faced a decent stint in the County Jail. The union appealed to the judge in the case, who agreed to allow work-release (allowed to come to work, but return to jail at all other times). The company had to agree to this arrangement. As Bobby’s Grievance Committeeman, my problem was that our contract had limitations on how long an employee could be off work without a reasonable excuse. Bobby’s sentence would put him past that deadline. If we didn’t get the company to agree to the work-release plan, he would most likely lose his job.

The Superintendent, who had the power to make that decision, was seen as a “hard ass” that was not known for leniency or influenced by appeals based on human concerns. Bobby’s mother had contacted me and was frantic about the situation. Without any expectation of success, I called the Superintendent and made the appeal on Bobby’s behalf. The Superintendent candidly told me that that Bobby had promised to straighten up before, and here he was again in trouble. In typical addict behavior, Bobby had blown his credibility. The one thing that Bobby had going for him was that when he was at work, he was a damn good steelworker. As a long shot I asked the Superintendent to go to the jail with me, talk to Bobby and judge for himself how sincere he was about cleaning up his act. I was stunned when the Superintendent agreed.

So there we were, on Thanksgiving Eve. A union and management guy who didn’t much like each other, emptying our pockets into the County Jail Visitors lockers, loading our shoes in and going to the interview area, complete with us on one side and Bobby behind the protective glass on the other. The discussion started off well, with the Superintendent reviewing Bobby’s record and Bobby accepting his responsibility for his situation. I actually began to think that the Superintendent might agree to the work-release program. Then Bobby pulled a religious tract out of his pocket and told the Superintendent that he had found God and was in “his” hands. The change in the Superintendent was immediate. Whatever sliver of credibility his earlier admissions and commitments might have been worth was gone. It was obvious that the “conversion” speech left the Superintendent with the sense that Bobby was running another con game. The discussion ended abruptly and we left. The Superintendent did not agree to the work-release. Bobby remained in jail. As it turned out, God was not on his side that night.

The deadline for his seniority continuation came and went and I was chalking Bobby up as a lost member. Then Superintendent surprised me again. When Bobby was released from jail, The Superintendent put him back to work with full employment rights. In all my time as a union rep, this was the only time that had happened without reaching a settlement in the grievance process. Bobby managed to get a handle on his alcohol problem, remained employed and is still working today.

I can’t tell you why the Superintendent agreed to go to the jail that night. I can’t tell you why he reinstated Bobby when he was released. Was it that he was a good worker? Was it Bobby’s mothers appeal? Was there something in the Superintendents personal life that resonated?

This case came back to me when a friend told me of his struggles to get an undocumented worker released from ICE detention. He had to find a lawyer who understood that the pure law didn’t always determine the outcome. Many of us face situations where it would seem that there are no options for success. Because it falls into that category of “you never know if you don’t try”. This case always reminds me that in any situation there are things we cannot know, that are playing in the outcome. Because of this experience, and many others since, I get irritated when someone asks why the union is pursuing an issue that seems hopeless. Many issues are. But one good result, like Bobby’s situation, is worth the disappointments and “I told you so’s” that come with the ones that don’t work out.

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