Phil Luciano: Cat fight about rights, not nicotine
Under Tuesday morning's downpour, some Caterpillar Inc. workers seemed to have adopted and modified that familiar postal slogan:
"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these clock punchers from swift completion of their appointed cigarettes."
Unless you're a secret agent in a London spy movie, smoking in the rain is sad -- especially if you must trudge a long way to light up. But that's what has become of Cat workers.
"It's bull----," said a rain-wet, 40-year-old woman puffing a Marlboro during her break outside a Cat building. "We don't live in a dictatorship."
That's why labor unions bargain contracts: to make sure a company doesn't get too big for its britches. With the smoking ban, Cat is like Drew Carey squeezed into a Speedo. It ain't pretty, and it ain't right.
Spare me the diatribes about the evils of smoking. Cat's new battle with the United Auto Workers isn't about tobacco. It's about worker rights.
For 60 years, the contract has said, "Employees shall be allowed on-the-job smoking privileges except in designated restricted areas, which areas will be plainly marked."
With the state's new indoor smoking ban, workers began smoking in parking lots, 15 feet from Cat doors. Still, without explaining much, Cat decided to end all on-site smoking.
As one Cat honcho told this paper, "This is ... a big part of our initiative, called Healthy Balance, to improve overall health and safety of our work force."
Health by force? Super. Perhaps security guards can rifle through lunch pails to make sure each worker is getting enough fruits and vegetables. And maybe before each shift the suits can lead workers on a heathy, inspiring jog through Cat properties, like in "Rocky."
Rather, the smoking ban is about money: Healthier workers mean lower health-care costs for Cat. In itself, that's not a bad thing.
But saving money isn't as important as honoring your word. That's why workers are mad.
Some have kept smoking, perhaps thinking themselves as modern Patrick Henrys on Cat property: "Give me cigarettes or give me death!" Actually, they come off as silly grandstanders. The union has filed a grievance, so why risk your job?
Others are doing the best they can to stay out of trouble yet maintain nicotine needs. At break time, they punch a time clock, dash to a public sidewalk, puff like mad and run back -- all in 10 minutes.
Cat offers quit-smoking programs. But not everyone succeeds, or even tries to quit. Without enough nicotine, smokers could lose focus, said one cig-toting worker standing three feet off Cat grounds.
"I think Cat is going to be creating more problems," he said, rain plinking off his head. "There will be loss of production and more injuries."
These workers didn't know Cat's exact policy about leaving company property during breaks. I called Cat, but didn't get a callback. But some factories are set 100 yards from the nearest public sidewalk. Smoking included, that's a tough distance to cover in 10 minutes.
Maybe that's the idea. If Cat makes workers run during breaks, they'll get a little exercise with their tobacco.
That's of little consolation. Line workers aren't asking for the moon. They just want Cat to be true to its word. How can you argue with that?
Phil Luciano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (309) 686-3155.