How would you like your employer to install a hot line so employes could phone in anonymous tips about colleagues they suspect are using drugs?
That's what happened at the Alvin W. Vogtle nuclear power project, which, according to a story in Monday's Washington Post, employs 13,000 people in Waynesboro, Ga. Three years ago, Georgia Power, which co-owns and manages the plant, installed the hot line and if a person whose name is reported refuses to take a urine test, he or she gets fired.
Nice, right? Want to settle a personal grievance, pick up the phone. Want to get rid of an underling, report him to the urine police. That's a lot faster than going through a messy termination procedure.
According to the Post story, five former employes at the plant have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor contending that they were required to undergo urine testing because they had complained about safety and construction problems. One man refused to take the test because he thought they were being used as a way of firing people who made safety complaints. Two others tested positive, although they insist they had not used drugs. Another refused to take the test, arguing it was an invasion of privacy. Yet another could not produce enough urine -- in the presence of a nurse -- and was fired for insubordination. The American Civil Liberties Union says their dismissals violate a federal law protecting whistle blowers at nuclear sites. That may be the least of the protections that are getting violated.
The Georgia Power case, with its anonymous hot line, is perhaps the most extreme example of the absolute threat to civil liberties that these insidious testing programs present.
Over the past few years, employers have devised all manner of excuses for inflicting tests on employes as a condition of employment. Some bookstore owners became convinced that their salesclerks were ripping off books. Solution? Polygraph them. The military got convinced it has a bad drug problem. Solution? Random urine testing in the armed forces. Within a very few years, hundreds of employers have made giving blood and saliva and urinating in a bottle in front of somebody a condition of employment.
The most appealing argument for this intrusion is safety. We don't want some coke head making a mistake at a nuclear power plant and causing a meltdown. Nor do we want a boozed-up airline pilot causing a horrible accident.
Other arguments have to do with quality control (coke heads on the assembly line can do all manner of mischief), national security (coke heads need money to support their habit, therefore might be willing to sell state secrets to evil parties), employe job performance and so forth. Setting an example for America's youth was one of the handy arguments trotted out to force professional athletes to submit to drug testing. The real argument, of course, was that the owners' multimillion-dollar investments were showing up too buzzed to work or not showing up at all.
While public safety arguments might outweigh individual privacy considerations in some extraordinary job categories, we have managed to go pathologically overboard. The President's Commission on Organized Crime, for example, recommended "appropriate" drug testing for all federal, state and local government employes as well as employes of government contractors. What does "appropriate" mean? Who decides? Are the computer foul-ups at the IRS caused by druggies? Who knows. Let's line everybody up and test them.
One of the largest employers in Washington, the Potomac Electric Power Co., is requiring employes to agree to drug tests and to submit to body or vehicle searches as a condition of employment. The union is grieving. I sure don't want my meter reader smoking grass.
News organizations are by no means immune to the hysteria. The New York Times is requiring urine tests of all new employes as part of a physical. Capital Cities Communications was toying with the idea of deploying drug-sniffing dogs in its newsrooms.
Polygraph and drug tests are intimidating, and they are a terrible invasion of a person's privacy. They are coercive in the worst possible sense and when they are wrong, as is frequently the case, they can be ruinous. The current pervasive use of them has created an atmosphere in which such horrors as anonymous hot lines can actually exist -- in which the victim has no right to confront his accuser and no recourse but to submit to a gross indignity or lose his livelihood.
Big Brother is alive and well and living in corporate America. Hand me the phone.