By on November 27, 2017

General Motors Flint Assembly

The American automotive industry is facing a problem that has nothing to do with supplier relations or regulatory handicaps. Apparently, domestic auto workers are getting addicted to drugs at an alarming rate. As a Michigan native, my childhood frequently included evenings at the local bowling alley where shop rats would go to tip back a few after the end of their shift. But, with the exception of an occasional “funny smelling cigarette,” you never really heard about anyone having troubles with more illicit substances.

However that’s exactly what the Detroit Three appear to be faced with, according to George Washington, an employee-assistance representative for General Motors. Washington claims line workers are becoming addicted to opioids and even crystal meth at a frequency that’s causing concern.  

“It’s not alcohol, it’s not marijuana now. You’re dealing with meth, you’re dealing with the opioids, you’re dealing with the heroin,” Washington, a former addict who started at GM in 1977, told Automotive News in an interview. “It’s starting to show up more and more at the automakers’ doorsteps.”

“[Manufacturers are] going through a transition with all the buyouts and the changing of the guard, which means there is a lot of people retiring … we’re getting a work force now of a lot of younger people who are experiencing different drugs.”

While companies have implemented recovery programs to help workers cope with drug use and mental health issues, most programs aren’t necessarily equipped to handle the challenges associated with severe addition. There is also a different stigma surrounding drugs like meth or heroin and some employees would rather stay silent than risk outing themselves as an addict.

In Flint, Michigan, UAW Local 598 puts on Soberfest — an annual picnic that celebrates plant workers who have overcome substance abuse while also providing resources for those still coping with addiction. Washington is a regular fixture at the event, which is now in its 23rd year.

“This opioid addiction is one of the worst addictions I have ever seen,” Washington said. “It’s so tricky, it’s so powerful. They’ll go in, they’ll get clean. But then when the bottom falls out, it’s one of the most painful I’ve ever seen. They’re suicidal, they feel they’ve let everybody down, they feel they’ve let themselves down. I think it’s a lot more difficult to recover from.”

While younger employees may be at a higher risk for meth use, its the older employees that might end up accidentally addicted to pain killers. The assembly line remains a demanding place and long hours can contribute to injuries that develop over the years. I know of at least two retired GM employees who were prescribed opioids by a physician to cope with back pain late in their careers, which ultimately resulted in dependency.

“They’re doing eight, 11 hours a day,” said Kevin Bush, an employee support representative at Ford’s Louisville Assembly Plant in Kentucky. “Assembly work is very boring, very tedious. That kind of work causes many aches and pains in their body. Maybe they have a pain and the doctor prescribes opioids. And over a period of time the use of that creates a high tolerance and an addiction. And one thing leads to another and it gets worse.”

Unfortunately, a lot of the information surrounding the problem is anecdotal. Everyone knows someone, or someone’s friend, who has had trouble with drugs and who also happened to be employed by an automaker. That’s not enough to definitively call this an epidemic. Some legitimate research needs to be done if the problem is to be addressed in earnest. But we do know that drugs are a problem in the U.S. and making them illegal hasn’t kept addiction or distribution at bay.

The Center for Disease Control cites drug overdoses at the leading cause of unintentional deaths for Americans under the age of 50. Over 64,070 people in the U.S. died from substance abuse in 2016 — representing a 21-percent increase from 2015. The National Center for Health Statistics attributes the majority of those fatalities to opioid usage with 15,446 deaths attributed to heroin, 14,427 to opioid pills and 20,145 from synthetic versions of heroin.

Meanwhile, only 37,461 people died as a result of car accidents, which is currently the second highest cause of accidental death in the United States.

[Image: General Motors]

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37 Comments on “Is Your Car Filled With Drugs? No, But the Line Worker Who Built It Might Be...”

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    The ‘yin and yang’ of our longing for a return to manufacturing/blue collar jobs.

    The current President speaks of restoring coal mining. I have at least 3 direct ancestors who were killed in coal mining accidents and had a grandfather who was stuck in a coal mine cave-in for 3 days as a youth beside dead and dying co-workers before he was rescued. He eventually died from lung cancer. Historically coal mining was viewed as perhaps the hardest, most dangerous and lowest paying of industrial occupations. Coal miners traditionally self medicated with alcohol. Yet here we are striving to ‘bring it back’.

    As per manufacturing. I grew up in Scarborough, the eastern part of Toronto. One area along Eglinton Avenue East is called The Golden Mile. Originally it held the largest munitions plant in the Commonwealth, GECO, the source of the TV series Bomb Girls. By the late 1960’s that stretch had over 10,000 blue collar, almost all unionized jobs.

    You could quit high school, get hired, buy a suburban bungalow, your wife could afford to stay home and ‘raise’ the children, you could buy a new car every 4th year and retire with a company pension.

    GM vans, ball bearings, themoses, appliances, business machines, electrical fixtures, aluminium extrusions were just some of the products manufactured.

    Every single one of those manufacturing jobs is now gone and most of the buildings have been replaced by ‘big box’ retail stores.

    Sorry for the ‘rambling’. Yes, blue collar/industrial work is tough. Workers get hurt. Unions arrive to promise them a unified voice to redress the imbalance of power. And employers long to replace them with machines.

    • 0 avatar
      Rick T.

      If the article today is right, we’ve got the worst of both now – poor working conditions and not enough pay to achieve what you mentioned:

      “AMAZON employees are exposed to such gruelling working conditions, they fall asleep on their feet, it has been claimed.

      Bone-weary workers reportedly have just nine seconds to process a package during the long-hours at the online store warehouse, with a Mirror investigation claiming employees are suffering panic attacks as they struggle to keep up with demand.”

    • 0 avatar

      Well then get rid of Trudeau and those jobs might come back.

      They are coming back in the US….here’s what happened only 1 month into Trump’s evil reign of terror

      “Goods producers added 46,000 new jobs last month for the sector’s best performance in two years. Manufacturers created 15,000 positions – more than they had in any month since December 2014 – and construction payrolls added 25,000 new workers – a level matched or exceeded only twice in 2016.”

      And here is the situation in November:

      “Yet Mr Trump’s rise seems to have coincided with a turnaround in fortunes for the middle class. In 2015 median household income, adjusted for inflation, rose by 5.2%; in 2016 it was up by another 3.2%. During those two years, poorer households gained more, on average, than richer ones. The latest development—one that will be of particular interest to Mr Trump—is that blue-collar wages have begun to rocket. In the year to the third quarter, wage and salary growth for the likes of factory workers, builders and drivers easily outstripped that for professionals and managers. In some cases, blue-collar pay growth now exceeds 4% (see chart).”

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        @Ilikestuff: funny but Canada’s unemployment rate has also declined in 2017. For example “Manufacturing employment edged up in October and was up +3.0% on a year-over-year basis…Employment gains were driven by full-time work, while fewer people worked part time.”

        Turning around an economy is like turning around an aircraft carrier. The current economic trends started a couple of years ago and are running on momentum, until this economic cycle ends.

      • 0 avatar
        30-mile fetch

        You omitted these quotes:

        “Has Mr Trump kept his promise to revive American manufacturing, mining and the like? A more probable explanation is that he came to office just as America began to run out of willing workers to fill all of its job vacancies.”

        “His promise to deregulate the energy sector may have spurred some investment. Yet his apparent economic success to date mostly reflects fortunate timing…That will not stop him from taking the credit should a tight labour market lift America’s spirits as the 2020 presidential election approaches.”

        Your post suggests you are unwilling to disentangle correlation and causation unless you wish to selectively criticize on a partisan basis. You probably don’t give Trump’s predecessor any credit for the improvement in the economy that co-occurred with his tenure. The cratering of said economy of course co-occurring with his predecessor.

    • 0 avatar

      Everything you’ve said is 100% true. It’s sick.
      The only thing that is incorrect is your understanding about coal mining. Today’s goal miners numbers are Shri king. Yes. Ainky hecause of two things. Low natural gas prices. And automation. Current coal miners make starting wages of just above $100,000 a year. About the same wages Canadian tar sands workers are making in Slberta. The dangers of cave ins and black lung have been addressed. Accidents do happen but are very rare with modern safety methods. Black lung is a thing of the past because of strict dust mask requirements. Coal miners used to be required to have them… but for years they would wear them I. Their belts. Yes they had them. Technically. But now they us not outbup with. They must actually wear them on their face.
      Anyway… cislnis s shrinking industry for many reasons. Like the news report last month. There are more workers at Wendy’s than their are in the entire coal industry.
      We gotta start getting mfg jobs back. This “post industrial.l economy is s lie. Total bullshit. And no… Trump is doing nothing about it. Total hot air. Total lies during the campaign. No surprise there. . . .

  • avatar

    5th paragraph, I think “severe addition” should be “severe addiction”.

    substantively, so certain people believe not having a job and having a good, but boring job, are both reasons to do drugs. How about just not taking meth no matter what!!!!!!

    • 0 avatar

      I think it goes along with economic status. Lower income people are more likely to use opioids recreationally, not have the money or ability to obtain an education, and then end up in a job which doesn’t require an education, and become an addict.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        I realize that anecdote is not evidence. But for various reasons between my brothers and myself we managed to attend the high schools which at the time represented the wealthiest and the poorest communities in Toronto.

        The drug use in the wealthiest was higher than in the poorest. And the only person that we knew who died from a drug overdose was the scion of a very wealthy family.

        Some researchers will claim that those in lower socio-economic positions are less willing to forego pleasure or to take into account the long term implications of their behaviour.

        Others will state that those with little hope or depressing lives require and/or deserve some pleasure be it in the form of drugs, alcohol, tobacco or extra-marital/adolescent procreation (which traditionally was rife among the lower classes).

        • 0 avatar

          I wonder if there is an age effect as well. The wealthy users do it when younger, and do things which are less likely to kill you, and are expensive (thinking coke here). Maybe they quit the stuff as they get real jobs.

          The impetus for quitting is not there as poor users get older, and like you said have a limited thought horizon. They’re also doing more addictive drugs like meth, which will kill you. They’ve also got less outside resources for assistance like rehab, and fewer people around them who can do something about the issue.

          • 0 avatar

            Agreed Corey.

            Richer kids have the means to get drugs and are also smart enough to quit when the real world hits, ie a job, family, financial obligations.

            Poor kids on the other hand don’t have the money for drugs and as they get older and have a couple of $$s in their pockets, waste that money on drugs/alcohol.

            It’s a harsh thing to say, but poor people are poor for a reason. Obviously it doesn’t apply for all. But take 100 poor people and 100 rich people and follow them around for a week, you’ll see the ratio of good decisions to bad decisions much higher for the rich than the poor.

          • 0 avatar
            Arthur Dailey

            Do they make better decisions are there are there different laws for the rich and for the poor?

            A millionaire’s son gets caught with some drugs and gets probation and maybe community service. And time at an expensive private rehab clinic.

            A poor kid gets caught and gets jail time.

            The same for joy riding, bar room brawls and unfortunately often sexual assault.

            A poor kid with a criminal record has a hard time trying to find a decent job. A rich kid, if they do have a record gets hired by their family or someone in the family’s network. Or stays in school long enough to get a ‘pardon’ and expunge the record.

            Rob a gas station for $50 and you get hard time. Misappropriate a hundred million dollars from a pension fund and it is quite likely that you may end up with a fine or suspension from trading. Madoff being the major exception.

            And this holds true whether you are a Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative.

          • 0 avatar
            30-mile fetch

            “Do they make better decisions?”

            Of course, and you need look no further than the biggest decision weighing on their future financial status–the situation into which they are born.

            How they keep f*ing that one up is beyond me. But if we continue using the rare up-from-the-bootstraps anecdote to shame them and pretend it isn’t a factor, I’m sure they’ll make a different decision on who, where, and when they are born in the next go ’round.

          • 0 avatar

            @Corey Lewis – there is a direct correlation between addiction and age at which one started consuming substances especially with alcohol.

          • 0 avatar

            @I_like_stuff – your assertions are completely incorrect. Addiction isn’t a choice and intelligence doesn’t factor into the ability to quit.

          • 0 avatar

            Addiction is not a choice? Do you mean, the addiction itself is not a choice (because it is compelled by changed brain chemistry) but initial consumption which alters said chemistry happens to be?

          • 0 avatar

            @28-Cars-Later –

            Almost no one chooses to be an addict and once an addict, one does not just choose to stop. Youth is the age where many become “addicted”. That is also a time of one’s life where the feeling of invincibility reigns. As a teen, I recall a t-shirt saying, reality is for people who can’t handle drugs”.

            Sure, one can argue that one chooses to ingest a potentially addictive substance but there are many psychosocial factors that makes taking that risk a viable option.

            Some people already have the altered brain chemistry predisposing them to addiction. Pre-existing mental health problems are common among addicts and so is personal trauma like sexual abuse.

            The article in question does unfortunately play to some of the stereotypes of addiction. Case in point, ” its the older employees that might end up accidentally addicted to pain killers.”

            Both addicts and non-addicts will develop a tolerance to opioids. They both will show signs of withdrawal if they are not weened off. Chronic pain sufferers can appear to have an addiction because they fear the return of pain. Anyone who continues using a substance despite knowing the damage caused by it and needs it psychologically is by definition an addict. Withdrawals or tolerance is not a sign of addiction.

          • 0 avatar

            I completely agree, as existing neurological problems or learned behavior have a significant impact on initial choices.

            Having a pre-existing neurological issue myself, I have to question why I was able to avoid drug, alcohol, sex or gambling addictions whereas others were not so fortunate. I have to say in part it is simply luck to know what you know about your conditions and who you are treated by and their own level of knowledge on the pre-existing conditions. The Internet made information more widely available vs years past but there is some culpability in drug and alcohol addiction.

            I read somewhere on average it takes alcohol on the brain for 28 days straight before chemistry permanently changes. Heroin typically it is one does, but I’ve read some bodies resist the addiction on dose one. If you’re drinking for more than seven days straight and don’t recognize an irregularity I question your competence. If you’ve been on Earth for any length of time you know heroin is highly addictive and ultimately kills. Teens which get wrapped up in these things may just be ill-informed and may be the exception in my mind, but if you’re an adult doing these things I have zero sympathy.

      • 0 avatar

        What are millenials ruining now? This is bs. I know people who worked the line in the 70’s-90’s. There has been coke and heroin for at least that long. Blame the boomers for destroying the economy.

  • avatar

    Pretty weak reporting. No studies or data showing opioid abuse is more prevalent in auto manufacturing than any other industry. It calls out the Detroit 3, does that mean Japanese, Korean, and German auto plants in the US are not affected? It’s a mystery.

    • 0 avatar

      The author isn’t arguing that opioid abuse is more prevalent in auto manufacturing than any other industry. They are just stating that it is a problem and one that is getting worse.

  • avatar

    The times I did manufacturing jobs were some of the most horrible days I did in my early work career. The repetition drove me crazy. I could easily see doing some drugs to help pass the time.

    When I did high volume screen printing, the lead would often go out and chug down a 40oz for lunch. One day, while I was out sick, she started the machine while someone was between pallets. No death, but a minor injury.

  • avatar

    Opioids are 100% addictive when used for more than 10-15 days. There are no exceptions. The medical industry has done this to the American public. My wife and I lived for a couple years in Ann Arbor ( (Well…close by anyway…on one of the many lakes surrounding AA) … this was 2009. We noticed opioids being widely prescribed even then for the most minor aches and pains. Ftom professionals we dealt with at the university and also at various research centers… to tradesmen I would hire to help with chainsaw work (we were heating with wood) to retired UAW assembly workers who were earning extra income by doing car repair thru craigslist on the side for extra income. I noticed the widespread use of these opioid painkillers …it seemed by most everyone (!!) … even back then.
    After we moved back to Reno and our other place in the Sierras in calif we began to notice the same thing.
    All the chainsaw work damaged my back as well. And eventually The doctors put me on those poisonous pills too. 7 years later… I got off then. They are poison. A living nightmare. It was – is – criminal CRIMINAL … what the medical industry has done!…!…
    It’s near impossible to get off opioids. The withdrawals are impossible to describe. But… there is a way to get off them… and…
    I know the trick. It’s the only solution. I have absolute no desire for them anymore. Zero. None. Fu.k that poison.
    But… and here’s the real problem… the solutions being offered up by the medical and/or the detox center recovery industry can not possibly succeed.
    There is only one way it can be accomplished. And it’s not what the powers that be think.
    Now it’s invading car factories. Great… just peachy.
    It’s a damn shame this poison has invaded the American automotive assembly plants.
    Watch…It will prove to be yet another excuse to move even more American factories to Mexico. Just watch.
    I’d like to see TTAC to investigate the Mexican car factories level of drug use.
    I’ll bet it’s near zero.
    PS if anyone reading this has connections to the opioid crisis “solutions” industry. I’ll be glad to share .. the only real solution to this nightmare. This national disgrace. This self induced disaster. Which even the media is trying to blame on the victims.

    • 0 avatar

      This is absolutely true, and if we had anything close to a functional justice system the criminals at Purdue Pharmaceutical would be thrown in prison for aggressively marketing Oxycontin as a viable drug for long term pain management. Before then opioids were only really prescribed for short term pain (surgery recovery, etc) or long term pain management for terminal patients.

      Instead the Sackler family (owners of Purdue) are billionaires and have killed tens of thousands of people.

    • 0 avatar

      “Opioids are 100% addictive when used for more than 10-15 days.”


      As stated earlier, withdrawal symptoms and tolerance are not signs of addiction.

      I do agree that there is indiscriminate prescribing. Many (but not all) Doctor’s run their practices as an assembly line and don’t spend the time explaining/counselling their patients. It is quick and easy to write a script for Tylenol #3’s and send the person off on their way. That is the same reason why we have “super bugs”. It is easier and quicker to give a patient a prescription antibiotic for a cold/flu than to explain to them that antibiotics don’t work on virus’s.

      What psychosocial factors are at play that have fueled the opioid epidemic?
      One place to lay blame is mass media and the brainwashing of the public. People have been convinced that there is a quick fix for all of their problems.
      Opioids/opiates are masking a mass illness of the spirit. Karl Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses. We have seen faith, hope, trust, a sense of greater purpose and a sense of belonging to a greater good destroyed over the decades.
      What is their remaining?
      Opiate/opioid induced haze or antidepressants masking the sense of dispair .

  • avatar

    YouTube has plenty of “How it’s made” videos from auto manufacturers around the world.

    Watch a few and compare the typical German, Japanese and British assembly line workers with their American counterparts and you will see that we Americans are old, fat, sloppy and broken down.

    If there is a growing drug problem in our auto factories it only matches what is happening to the working class nationwide.

    We suffer from exaggerated self esteem and the delusion that yes, we are good enough and darn it, peope like us.

    What we need is a strong dose of shame and responsibility and to put down the drugs (legal and otherwise) and Doritos and earn some self respect back.

    • 0 avatar

      Talk is cheap when you don’t have to walk a mile in somebody’s shoes.

      Does it occur to you that your trying to treat the symptoms and not the disease? The reason we have a bunch of old fat, sloppy and broken down workers has little to do with exaggerated self esteem and delusion.

      How about many of these opioid and meth addicts are using those drugs as performance maintainers or enhancers because they have to. We simply don’t live in a society that tolerates the aging process. You get old and slow down your effectively useless and its time to put you out to pasture and for most Americans that simply isn’t an option.

      Sure you can chalk it up to poor life choices but for many people their only option is to work until they simply are too broke to work anymore and hope they’ve “retired” close enough to where they will end up in a pine box before they run out of money.

      I don’t think its coincidence I know more people than I have fingers that are resigned to the fact that they will have to work until they drop dead on the job unless they get fired for poor work performance first.

  • avatar

    I had a BIL who was a UAW assembly worker in one of the Chrysler plants in Fenton MO. He had a raging drug problem, missed something like half of his scheduled days one year, and the union contract protected him UNTIL he got caught selling meth in the plant. He then got to spend 3 years in the penitentiary in Fulton MO.

    I will admit that I like vicodin and percocet for pain, but fortunately they both give me constipation and nightmares after a day or two of use, so I quit quickly after the pain is under control. Wonderful short-term fix for an acute gout flare-up.

    • 0 avatar

      @CincyDavid – have you tried non-steroidal anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen, indomethacin? Colchicine can work to reduce a flair up. Corticosteroids also are effective. They all have side effects.

      Constipation is a universal side effect of opioids/opiates. Codeine is one of the worst with synthetics like fentanyl tending to be less constipating.

    • 0 avatar

      Little late here, but if I’m going in for some kind of surgery or whatnot, I’m going to make sure that I have an idea of what will be needed to suppress pain beforehand, and make sure that anyone else helping me through is aware, as well, and will make sure that I only have the bare minimum needed to sleep well and not go completely nuts during the day.

      Obviously, an emergency would be different. Whatever the case, my goal would be to minimize any and all exposure to opiates as possible! The risks are just too great!

  • avatar

    Auto workers in America will be a thing of the past soon.GM is already building in China, along with Ford. So say goodbye! Ford is focusing their next Focus there!

  • avatar

    Last month was my 28th anniversary of being a healthcare professional. I remember distinctly when Medicare, Medicaid, and physician/nursing professions began pushing for “pain” to be the fifth vital sign. You wouldn’t believe how big a consolidated effort was put forth to institute this measure. When patient satisfaction scores/monetary reimbursement became part of the equation, it was easy to see how this was going to get out of control quickly. And once second, third, and fourth generation analgesics came on board, the push was there to prescribe them. When you combine these medications with the ability to get a 90 day supply at one time (you know, to save money), it is no wonder more and more people are dying of overdoses. Unfortunately, this is a toothpaste is out of the tube scenario.

    • 0 avatar
      30-mile fetch

      I recently read a fascinating and deeply depressing article on Purdue Pharma’s ridiculously unethical efforts to ingrain Oxycontin (and it’s predecessors and successors) into the mainstream healthcare field, with the addiction and destroyed lives that ensued. Purdue knew what they were doing. There is a subset of the white collar ruling class that deserve their own special circle of hell, but it is simpler and more instinctive to blame the victims. The Sackler Family that founded the company has been a nice big patron of the arts and thus has their magnanimous name on many buildings. Only took the destruction of thousands of lives to fund that that aristocratic legacy.

    • 0 avatar

      There are many things that can cause pain and therefore there are many treatment options. Following the world health organization’s pain ladder is one way to minimize abuse/misuse. Another is to rely more on pain management experts.
      As you have pointed out, too many look at a quick fix which also happens to be the most profitable option for Big Pharma and Doctors.

      That is one reason why I feel “for profit” health care systems aren’t the most effective way to deliver health care. Patients often aren’t in a position to refuse service or shop around. They have to trust their care providers and that trust is abused in the name of profit.

  • avatar

    Just say no!!! Lock them all up!!! Let the prison system deal with there drug use……. Is that what they did to a certain sector people in the 80s What is the difference now..

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