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ILR Oral History Project documents unsung heroes of the struggle against alcoholism in the workplace

When Samuel Bacharach was appointed director of the R. Brinkley Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related Workplace Studies in the late 1980s, he was, he concedes, a bit out of his depth at the time.

Not that Bacharach, Cornell's McKelvey-Grant Professor of Labor Management in the ILR School, lacked a command of the facts about alcoholism and the workplace. That wasn't the issue.

But to get to the guts of his research, he needed people who had been in the trenches. People who could make the numbers real. People, as fate would have it, like Mickey Diamond, Donnie Perks, Stacia Murphy and Jim Cusack, each a recovering alcoholic and all pioneers in the field of alcohol abuse prevention in the workplace. Their testimonies offer powerful guidance as well as deep, personal insights into what the battle with alcoholism is all about.

"In order to reach out to the real world you need an authentic voice and first-class research," said Bacharach, who developed close, continual relationships with Diamond, Murphy, Perks and Cusack. "To do that, we have to partner with people whose work carries our research -- especially when you are working in the social sciences."

That "authentic voice" is accessible in a series of videotaped interviews on the Smithers Web site that are now part of the institute's growing Oral History Project. Bacharach, who conceived the project, introduces the purpose of the histories but conducts each interview off-camera so the focus is on the storyteller.

Seeing and listening to the gravelly voiced Diamond is like taking a trip into the city's hard-bitten, hard-drinking working class past -- a past that is yet present. Diamond is an unsung leader in establishing the first workplace alcoholism programs in two New York City unions. He also was involved in the founding years of the Member Assistance Program, a union peer intervention and counseling program, the expansion of which continues to be an emphasis of the Smithers Institute. "Mickey Diamond was a visionary union leader who understood the problem of alcohol in the workplace," said William Sonnenstuhl, associate director of the Smithers Institute.

The Smithers Institute at a glance

"I have seen, personally, the damage alcoholism can do to people, how it can change them ... families suffer, the alcoholic suffers. It is a very painful disease ... (but) our legacy is one of hope through prevention and treatment."

Those are the words of Adele C. Smithers, president of the Christopher D. Smithers Foundation and former wife of the late R. Brinkley Smithers, a man who had struggled with alcoholism and achieved sobriety. The R. Brinkley Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related Workplace Studies was founded in 1990 with an endowment from the Smithers family to Cornell's ILR School. The institute is a pioneering organization in the study of employee assistance programs and member assistance programs.

Researchers at the institute conduct basic and applied research on alcohol and substance abuse in the workplace, often with an emphasis on the workplace as an entry point for prevention and treatment of alcoholism, drug dependency and related health issues. Studies are published in peer-reviewed journals and other publications in the field. The institute also conducts workshops and conferences.

For more information, visit the R. Brinkley Smithers Institute.

Bacharach first met Diamond at an Elk's Club in Queens in 1990. It was the beginning of an important relationship between the self-described Cornell "number-cruncher" and a pioneer of the tough-love approach to dealing with problem drinkers in the workplace.

"His voice was more powerful than anything I could say with my numbers," said Bacharach. "I was incredibly moved by the [alcohol abuse] intervention work Mickey had done in the workplace. He became my research mentor and a mentor for our early research on substance abuse and the workplace."

Diamond had worked for years establishing intervention programs for problem drinkers in the steamfitters' and sanitation workers' unions. Early on he identified the job as the gateway toward getting problem drinkers to own up to their issues.

"My job was to get supervisors to document work performance," says Diamond, who died just two weeks after Bacharach interviewed him. "You sit down with [a worker] and tell him, 'listen you gotta watch your drinking,' and he'll tell you a story about a horrible wife, 10 terrible kids -- and you'll end up giving him $5 to go get a drink. But if you talk about his job, you'll get his attention."

Diamond's sudden death added an even greater sense of urgency to the Oral History Project, and Bacharach plans to have as many as 20 interview subjects on the site.

"Doing this work and getting the oral histories going has added a certain level of passion to my concern," Bacharach said. "These people are the educators; I'm just the researcher. I'm behind the scenes. They've been at this since the 1940s, and their voices lend legitimacy to our academic voice -- they are the very people who helped us with our own research, and their words reach deeper than anything academics can say."

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