Hazards: Smoking and the workplace

OLTCN: Brochure [pdf]

Organized Labor and Tobacco Control Network
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
44 Binney Street
Smith 2 Boston,
MA 02115
Tel.:+1 (617) 632-2244
Fax:+1 (617) 632-1999



What Do I Need to Know about Labor Unions and Tobacco?

When working with new collaborative partners it is important to learn about them. The following information includes key points the Department of Work Environment at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Center for Community-Based Research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have learned over the years as they have worked with labor unions.

Blue-collar and service workers have higher rates of tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke than other workers.

Blue-collar workers are 71 per cent more likely to smoke than white-collar workers. Thirty-six per cent of blue-collar workers, 32 per cent of service workers, and 21 per cent of white-collar workers smoke.

• As compared to white-collar workers, blue-collar workers are heavier smokers, start to smoke earlier, are more likely to be exposed to other harmful chemicals on the job that may interact with tobacco smoke thereby increasing their risk of disease, and are less successful in quitting smoking.

• A 1997 National Cancer Institute study, found that 54 per cent of white collar workers were covered by a smokefree policy in the workplace, compared with only 35 per cent of service workers, and only 27 per cent of blue-collar workers.

Tobacco control interventions have been less effective with these workers than with white collar workers

• The above data point to the fact that decades of tobacco control efforts have met with limited success among blue-collar and service workers, while achieving positive reductions in tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke among white collar workers. New strategies and community partnerships are, therefore, necessary.

Labor unions are an organized force that represent many blue-collar and service workers.

• Concern for workers' health and wellbeing is a hallmark of unions. Progress in the area of tobacco control reflects this concern and points to opportunities for collaboration and joint projects.

• Because many labor unions are made up of blue-collar and service workers, unions are an ideal channel to reach these populations who are likely to have high rates of smoking.

• Unions are a credible source of information for their members and they have a proven infrastructure for communicating with and mobilizing their members.

Blue-collar workers and the unions that represent them have been targeted by the tobacco industry

• The tobacco industry has targeted blue collar and service workers in its advertising, promotions, and sponsorships. The tobacco industry has attempted to persuade labor leaders to support the industry's efforts to promote and protect itself. Our job is to assure unions that the tobacco control movement-not the tobacco industry-is on their side

Unions will have varying degrees of interest in tobacco control efforts

• As with any effort to build a strong coalition, it is important that labor unions be involved in coalition efforts from the beginning of a campaign, and not brought in at the end simply to rubber-stamp decisions already made

• There is great heterogeneity within the labor movement. Some have always been more interested in working with tobacco control (the National Education Association, and the Association of Flight Attendants) than others (Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers' Union).

Here are some success stories:

• New York's Health and Human Services Employees Union led a successful union-based campaign to increase the New York state tobacco tax, part of which is used to extend health insurance coverage to the uninsured.

• The National Education Association has passed a number of tobacco control policies and has developed a comprehensive school-based program on tobacco prevention, media literacy and advocacy.

• The Association of Flight Attendants, AFL-CIO participated in garnering support for landmark legislation that banned smoking on domestic flights of 6 hours or less and protected their members from prolonged exposure to tobacco smoke.

• Project BUILT-State Building & Construction Trades Council of California is working with the building trades to reduce exposure to second hand smoke in union halls and members' homes, include smoking hazards in health and safety training of union apprenticeship programs, implement and enforce voluntary workplace smoking bans (including outdoor workplaces), encourage health and welfare funds to participate in antitobacco activities, increase smoking cessation among members, and educate their members about how the tobacco industry targets blue collar workers

• The Laborers International Union of North America and unions within the Massachusetts AFL-CIO (including the Ironworkers) are working with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute on research projects to develop methods to reduce smoking among their members.

Unions may have competing priorities that demand their attention

While health of their members is an important issue, unions may frame health more broadly then the mere absence of disease. In order to achieve true health for its members, unions stress the importance of achieving solidarity, equality, freedom, and dignity for all people.

• Unions provide a voice for working people and protection against arbitrary decisions, actions and policies by management.

• Wages, hours, and working conditions are "bread and butter" issues for unions.

• Tobacco control issues may be linked with working conditions. Unions may be concerned with secondhand smoke on the job but will expect their tobacco control partners to show concern for ridding the workplace of other toxic substances too.

• Fulfilling these obligations may leave little time to take on other issues, so it is important for tobacco control advocates to frame tobacco issues in ways that link with union priorities and goals.

Unions are mandated to represent all members, including smokers and nonsmokers.

• The 1935 National Labor Relations Act gives workers the legal right to organize. It also mandated that unions fairly represent all members. For tobacco control this means that unions need to represent both smokers and non-smokers. As a result, some unions may feel paralyzed to act on tobacco control measures, while others will forge ahead.

Support of unilateral management actions (e.g. management instituting smoking bans without labor input) will lose you friends in the labor movement

• A smoking ban instituted by management without labor input in a unionized work setting will be opposed by labor. This does not necessarily mean that the union is prosmoking -most are not. It means that the union is protecting the voice of its membership. It is the unilateral action by management that the union is protesting, not the smoking ban, per se.

• Members of the tobacco control movement should encourage management to formally negotiate smoking policy changes with the union.

• When considering smoking policy changes at unionized worksites, smoking cessation coverage should be included. Interested? Need more information or advice?

Contact us:

Deborah McLellan - Executive Director or
Graham Kelder - Project Manager
Organized Labor and Tobacco Control Network
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
44 Binney Street, SM-2
MA 02115

Tel: +1 (617) 632-2244
Fax: +1 (617) 632-1999