FLINT, Mich. — It's a Sunday afternoon in July, and the Union City Ball Fields are teeming with picnickers enjoying softball, face painting, trout fishing and even a semipro wrestling match. George Washington — that's his real name — strolls through the crowd, shaking hands with people he recognizes from work at the General Motors truck plant or around town.
This is not a typical company picnic. It's the 23rd annual Soberfest, put on by UAW Local 598 to celebrate plant workers and family members who have overcome substance abuse and addiction, and to extend a hand to those fighting it now. Washington, a GM employee-assistance representative and former addict, has spent many years on the front lines of the problem.
From his point of view, the auto industry has a more serious drug crisis today than ever.
"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," says Washington, who started at GM in 1977. "It's starting to show up more and more at the automakers' doorsteps."
The Detroit 3, he says, are "going through a transition with all the buyouts and the changing of the guard, which means there is a lot of people retiring." As a result, "we're getting a work force now of a lot of younger people who are experiencing different drugs."
Automakers have programs to help workers with addictions and mental-health disorders, but the programs aren't necessarily equipped to handle the long recovery times that opioids require. And workers who fear for their job security are often reluctant to seek help, especially if they've lapsed more than once. Among the efforts to break the cycle of drug abuse is Soberfest, with the ballfields and picnic tables flanked by booths for community organizations such as Odyssey House, Serenity House and the Brighton Center for Recovery, where local native Eminem once checked himself in.
"This opioid addiction is one of the worst addictions I have ever seen," says Washington. "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."