Stewards & Smoking Issues
Few issues brew up a storm as quickly as the regulation of smoking. Things can get very messy fast. The descent into irrational name-calling breaks speed records: “Smoke Nazi,” “Horse’s Ass,” “Anti-tobacco Freak,” “Fascist,” and “Snobbish” are just a few of the printable epithets used recently in an e-mail exchange about a management-imposed smoking refutation in a Midwestern factory. When you set up a strong physical and behavioral addiction against the employer’s power over us on the job, the result is a confusing, difficult and generally unpleasant situation for a union steward.
There is good reason for all this heat. Smoking, in addition to its physical effects, symbolizes for many people one of the few worker-controlled break time diversions or recreations available during their highly regimented, very stressful and often dangerous workday. Smoking is also seen as a class issue. It is in fact true that working-class people smoke at a higher rate than middle- and upper-class people.
Nevertheless, not only relevant local, state and federal laws but also union contracts arc changing ail the time, generally in the direction of discouraging smoking.
How Smoking Becomes an Issue
Stewards may have to face the smoking issue when any of the following happen:
The employer proposes or institutes unilateral changes in smoking rules, perhaps without proper notice and negotiation with the union;
A new law is passed, locally or statewide, which then must be applied and interpreted in your workplace;
In contract negotiations or the run up to them, either the employer or a group of workers want more smoking restrictions or a complete ban;
The employer embeds smoking regulation in a “wellness” program through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or elsewhere that might be compulsory’, not confidential, and/or linked to health insurance premiums or even continued employment; this might include smoking off the job.
When these happen, what should the union’s response be?
The Steward’s Goals
The union may face these circumstances as grievances, unfair labor practices, bargaining issues or workplace controversies. But with this issue, as with most others, the steward’s main task is to help manage the interpersonal debate, no matter how heated it gets, in such a way as to make the union stronger and keep the boss from using the issue to increase his power over workers. The main task then breaks out into the need to;
- Protect and increase worker health and safety generally.
- Weaken the employer’s power to manage us as they please.
- Maintain a focus on the larger workplace health and safety hazards that the employer needs to “fix.”
- Take a cue from health and safety strategies and change the discussion from “fixing the workers” to “fixing the hazard.”
Smoking as a Health and Safety Issue
Framing the smoking issue as a health issue, we can compare the employer and the union perspectives as follows. The employer focuses on productivity and insurance cost, looking for profit maximization and legal plausible denial. I his leads to a “fix the worker” approach, familiar from behavioral safety programs.
The union needs to approach it from the “hazard identification and removal” point of view. The goal is to protect worker health, block the expansion of employer control over activity that does not interfere with work, maintain and expand worker compensation and increase insurance and health care protection. That should lead stewards to a “fix-the-hazards” approach. But the union also needs to “support the victim.”
Stewards can help make life better for all workers by making the following part of an overall program to reduce smoking:
- Help for workers who want to quit. However, this help has to be confidential, effective, free, and voluntary. If the employer wants to bargain over smoking, make him bargain an appropriate quitting program that observes these standards.
- Sensitivity to nonsmokers’ rights and complaints but also actions on other workplace hazards that may be more severe, long ignored, and especially dangerous to smokers when combined with smoke, and infuriating when increased smoking restrictions arc proposed.
- Functional smoking areas for smoking-addicted workers—not outdoors with no shelter, but a place reasonably close, accessible, with decent seating, and ventilated.
The Danger of Doing Nothing
In the past, some unions avoided the smoking issue completely, arguing that until the boss cleans up many other recognizable health and safety hazards in the workplace, the issue of smoking should be kept off the table. This argument is a good place to start: Smoking is, in fact, a health issue. However, there are risks in holding smoking hostage to all other hazards. The National Labor Relations Board in 1991 ruled that smoking rules are a mandatory subject of bargaining, but that the union can effectively waive its right to demand bargaining if it ignores management action on the topic for too long, as in past practice.