Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
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Pasco teachers union won’t be blowing smoke

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We are never powerless when we know we have something the other party wants, as abundantly demonstrated by Mahatma Gandhi’s application of passive resistance to win India’s independence from the British empire.

Understanding this explains our complete lack of surprise when, two weeks ago, the union representing Pasco school employees rejected a speedy invitation to discuss making all the district schools tobacco-free zones.

Just now, Pasco schools built before 1996 must provide an outdoor smoking compound, shielded from students’ view, where employees can indulge their stinky, unhealthy habit. Eliminating on-campus smoking requires the unanimous approval of the administration, staff and faculty, a hurdle so daunting no school in 17 years has even attempted a vote.

Now, having only recently abandoned a half-hearted attempt to become smoke-free through its hiring processes — in August, the district quit its tobacco-screening program for new lunchroom hires — the administration of first-year Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning is looking for other options, largely in response to a recommendation by its Health Advisory Committee to stub out tobacco-friendly provisions in the 1996 contract.

Here’s what United School Employees of Pasco President Lynne Webb told the Pasco Tribune’s Ronnie Blair: “I think they should get some data first to see what the impact would be. I don’t think it’s something that warrants opening negotiations now.” Roughly translated it comes out, “Let’s see what the district is willing to trade to get this done.”

It’s not that Webb is opposed, necessarily, so let’s not make the union leader out to be some stealth operative for Big Tobacco; indeed, she’s endorsed as “admirable” the district’s exploratory efforts.

But for a lot of worthwhile reasons, from setting examples for our impressionable youth to general tidiness to squeezing health care costs, the district is eager to make this happen. And that gives the union a wedge, one Webb and Co. should be perfectly happy to hammer as deep into its negotiations as they please.

What they might want in return is not for me to say. The district already offers smoking-cessation programs through a private contractor, so that’s out. For that matter, the swap might not even be related to smoking.

Moreover, the scale almost certainly will be one that slides. Imposing an outright post-1996 tobacco ban on the grandfathered schools would have a higher cost than imposing the ban by a simple majority vote, which would in turn have a higher cost than a ban-by-super-majority.

What’s fascinating about this is it’s hard to imagine any more than a minority of rank-and-file union members being opposed to going smoke- (and, presumably, dip-) free on campus, making it a situation not unlike what baseball faced several years ago over the issue of performance-enhancing drugs. Management wanted tighter screening and heavy penalties to eliminate future scandals, and players who were clean wanted the cheaters stopped. Still, it took substantial horse-trading before the players’ association agreed to the current stiff penalties — 50-game suspensions for first-time offenders, up to a lifetime ban for three-time recidivists.

The upshot: Pasco teachers now have something in common with million-dollar shortstops. Solidarity, brothers.

Meanwhile, smoke ’em if you got ’em. Or not.

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