Paul Gordon: Cat tweaks smoking ban

Paul Gordon

All along Caterpillar Inc. has said its decision to ban smoking on all its campuses in the United States had more to do with employee health than anything else.

So, now, does its decision last week to relax the rules where employees might be endangered when they leave company property to grab a smoke.

Caterpillar is giving the managers of each of its facilities the authority to designate a certain spot on campus where employees can smoke before or after shifts or during their lunch or other breaks.

To date, apparently, only a plant at Mossville has done so, but others may follow, said Wes Hogsett, bargaining chairman for United Auto Workers Local 974, the union that represents hourly workers in the Peoria area.

Mind you, Caterpillar’s smoking ban remains in effect and probably will not change. But the company apparently figures people harming themselves with tobacco is better than getting hit by a car.

“It started with the second shift last Tuesday,” said Hogsett. He said Caterpillar officials told the union that in evaluating the smoking ban that took effect June 1 and its ramifications, the company determined some employees were potentially putting themselves in danger when they left the company campus for a cigarette.

“There isn’t a lot of room between Cat’s property and the road next to where people were going to smoke. So now the company is taking employees out of harm’s way by redefining what its campus is and drawing a circle around it and saying this is where people can smoke,” Hogsett said.

Caterpillar confirmed the change occurred but declined to say much else about it. “To promote a safe work environment and sustain the intent of the smoke-free policy — employee health — we are addressing a safety concern,” said spokeswoman Rachel Potts.

Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board is still investigating the unfair labor practice charge Local 974 filed in response to the ban.

The union, you may recall, filed the charge with the NLRB regional office in Peoria not because it favors smoking but because its contract with Caterpillar — first negotiated in 1948 — stipulates “on-the-job smoking privileges” for the workers.

The ban, the UAW said, was not bargained, rather it was unilaterally imposed and therefore violates the contract. The union believes it cannot allow Caterpillar to get away with this unilateral change in the contract because of the precedent it would set.

An unfair labor practice charge also was filed by the International Association of Machinists union, which represents hourly workers at Caterpillar’s plant in Joliet. The NLRB regional office in Chicago, which took that case, has deferred action until the contractual grievance procedure plays out.

Grievances also were filed on behalf of Peoria-area employees who were suspended by Caterpillar within the first few days of the ban for lighting up on company property.

Those workers have since returned to work.

Paul Gordon can be reached at