Thursday, March 14, 2002

AK Steel: Drug searches our right

Union sees insult in dogs checking workers' lockers

By Janice Morse,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MIDDLETOWN — AK Steel management Wednesday defended the use of drug-sniffing dogs a day earlier to check out some 400 employee lockers as necessary to help eradicate employee drug use and not a violation of anyone's rights.

        Employee use of drugs, a management official stressed, is something that cannot be tolerated where heavy equipment, huge machinery and molten steel pose constant risks of injury or death.

        But union leaders, who filed a grievance with company management Wednesday, say the pre-dawn search early Tuesday invaded employees' rights to privacy and was conducted without the “reasonable and confirmable suspicion” of substance abuse that they say the labor contract requires.

        Employees do have a right to privacy, but “employers have the right to go into lockers if they have a reasonable basis for doing so,” said Paul Tobias, a Cincinnati employment lawyer. “It's a gray area,” he said, and it often turns on what's considered reasonable under the law.

        Union employees may have more protection by nature of their labor agreements, Mr. Tobias said.

        The search is expected to be a topic at the union's regular membership meeting, set for 4 p.m. today, said Ed Shelley, president of the Armco Employees Independent Federation Inc.

        Some of the 3,165 Middletown workers in the union are insulted by the search and the level of distrust it implies, Mr. Shelley said.

        Others don't see it as a big deal, he acknowledged. “But I think until someone actually experiences watching another person go through someone else's wallet, they don't know what that's like. That disturbed me; that was intrusive,” Mr. Shelley said.

        Mr. Shelley said he saw only one wallet scrutinized, however.

        Alan McCoy, a vice president who serves as spokesman for the company, said signs at every entrance to the plant provide fair warning that “all vehicles and belongings are subject to search once you enter those gates.”

        Tuesday's sweep follows one in October. Mr. Shelley said both searches were fruitless and unnecessary.

        Although Mr. McCoy confirmed that no measurable evidence was found, he said the possibility of searches may deter employees from bringing drugs or alcohol to work. Further, Mr. McCoy said, any alleged intrusion was minimal because company officials and off-duty Middletown police opened only seven lockers after two drug-detecting dogs indicated drugs might be inside.

        Mr. McCoy wouldn't say what, if anything, led to the latest search or the previous one.

        Despite the lack of any illegal drugs found, Mr. McCoy maintains the searches are needed because some employees — 31 since 1998 — have tested positive for drug use or refused drug tests.

        Mr. Shelley said focusing on just the drug aspect “misses the point.”

        “AK takes the position that they own the lockers, therefore they can search them. Sure, they own them. But they loan them to me. If I loan my car to you, do I have a right to have you pulled over and have you searched, simply because you're in my car?” Mr. Shelley asked.

        Mr. McCoy countered with his own analogy.

        “The notion, "Hey, that's my locker' is no more true than an employee saying, "Hey, that's my crane' or "That's my fork truck,'” he said.

        Mr. Shelley pointed out that an arbitrator in 1997 ruled that a 1992 companywide search of lockers and vehicles was “indiscriminate and unprecedented,” and ordered the company to reimburse employees for locks that were cut off of lockers and to compensate employees for time they spent detained during vehicle searches.

        Mr. McCoy said the company's top safety rating is all the more reason to remain vigilant. “We're not going to go lax,” he said. “We will do another search.”

       Mike Boyer contributed to this story.


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