Tougher Smoking Policy Puts Union in Tight Spot

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The General Services Administration will no longer allow smoking lounges after June 19 in the 1,500 federal buildings it manages.

But a Federal Communications Commission facility in Columbia is not a GSA property, so its regulations do not apply to the small, nondescript room where FCC workers can go to scar their lungs.

The FCC wants to follow the GSA's lead and make those employees find other air to pollute, but it's not as simple as posting a no-smoking sign. The smoking room was negotiated with the National Treasury Employees Union and shutting it down requires negotiations too.

That puts the NTEU in a tricky situation.

It fights vigorously for its members in 31 agencies across the government, from the Agriculture Department to the Social Security Administration. For 70 years, according to its Web site, the organization has worked with government bosses, Congress and in the courts "to protect, promote and expand the rights of those it represents."

But what happens when those it represents feel they have rights that are in conflict? Should a union protect the right of unionized smokers when those smokers trample on the right of nonsmokers, also in the bargaining unit, to smoke-free air?

Research leaves no doubt that the nonsmoking side easily wins this debate.

Yet, the union that so forcefully stands up for its members in other ways is a bit weak in the knees when it comes to the smoking room.

"It is important that they [smokers] have a place to go that is away from other employees and safe for them as well," NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley said in December.

But smoking isn't safe for anyone, anywhere -- even nonsmokers. And late yesterday, Kelley issued a statement saying NTEU would not oppose closing smoking lounges in FCC buildings. However, she added: "These decisions are made on a case-by-case basis." Yet, no case can be made for smoking rooms, even though Kelley's concern for those with a deadly addiction is understandable.

The dry language of a surgeon general's document makes it clear:

"Secondhand smoke exposure causes disease and premature death in children and adults who do not smoke. . . . Secondhand smoke contains hundreds of chemicals known to be toxic or carcinogenic (cancer-causing), including formaldehyde, benzene, vinyl chloride, arsenic, ammonia, and hydrogen cyanide."

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