What took place in the wake of that highly publicized accident and testimony was a gross overreaction to a disturbing, but not widespread, problem. Congress and rail management decided to blame all locomotive engineers for one man's problem. Every railroad family, at once, became the enemy and victim of the Gates stigma. The reaction has directly resulted in devastating abuses of the rights of workers who run the nation's railroads.
Like many rail workers, the employees on the Southern Pacific Railroad near New Orleans were forced to prove their innocence by submitting to random drug urinalysis tests. This fundamental invasion of privacy was compounded, however, when the Southern Pacific employees learned that they were being observed without their knowledge. The restrooms were under videotaped surveillance, and a supervisor sat in a nearby room and watched them. (A federal judge later dismissed this disgraceful management conduct as ''inadvertent.")
Has our society become so paranoid that we now condone behavior that violates the basic rights of decent, hard-working people? If the actions of Southern Pacific are any indication, I would say that corporate America is heading in that direction.
The secret surveillance of employees isn't the only problem. Recently an engineer from Minneapolis for the Chicago & North Western Railroad was identified as a drug user and dismissed by his employer erroneously. He was the victim of a false-positive drug test result.
And he is not alone. The government-certified testing procedures and laboratories used by the U.S. Department of Transportation have already produced upward of 100 false-positive test results. This is costing transport employees their reputations and their jobs. This also leaves me and my professional peers in quite a quandary.
First, we have a national drug-testing policy that forces four million transportation employees to prove their innocence. Then, no one can say with confidence whether positive or negative test results are what they seem. So unfair accusations based on unreliable evidence can be quite common.
After the 1987 train disaster, the public began to fear that locomotive engineers were drug addicts. But the less-publicized facts differ dramatically
from the public perception.
At the Burlington Northern, the nation's largest railroad, less than one- half of 1 percent of 2,725 employees returned positive results for the first half of 1990, since the start of testing. And none of those who tested positive for drugs was a locomotive engineer. Not one.
Industry wide, only 1 percent tested positive last year in random tests of 35,228 employees, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Compare these results to those of a recent study by SmithKline Beecham Clinical Laboratories showing that 10.4 percent of the nation's general workforce tests positive for drugs.
There is no denying that locomotive engineers are in "safety sensitive" positions; we accept that responsibility and risk, as many of our fathers and grandfathers did. (My father, too, was a locomotive engineer.) Those rail employees who use drugs are flirting with disaster.
Whether the drug user represents one out of 100 or 1,000, among us, we are committed to zero-tolerance, for your safety and for our own. The members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and other unions have been successful in policing our ranks and then helping those fellow employees with problems since 1984. The below-average statistics prove the effectiveness of our approach.
We call our successful intervention programs Operation Redblock and Operation Stop. They are union-based employee assistance programs with two primary goals:
* To first get the individual off the rails before a tragedy occurs, through peer referral or self-admission.
* To help the individual begin a confidential program of treatment and counseling, so he or she can return to productive employment, drug free.
By focusing on the opportunity to get help through treatment, rather than being fired or otherwise punished, these programs, as evidenced on the Burlington Northern, have made the locomotive engineer's workplace virtually
Yes, our nation has a drug crisis. Yes, we must all do everything we can to rid the workplace of drugs.
But we must not accept the notion that cleansing America of this problem can be accomplished by trampling on the rights of law-abiding citizens like the Southern Pacific train crew that was videotaped.
If we sanction such behavior, then the day comes closer when those of us fighting the war against drugs will find ourselves among its innocent victims, with fewer freedoms and rights than we enjoy today.