By Wayne Parry
Shawn Fain, the international president of the United Auto Workers union who recently won large raises for his workers, is taking aim at a new target: New Jersey lawmakers who are delaying votes on a bill to ban smoking in Atlantic City’s casinos.
The head of the powerful union, which represents workers at three casinos here, is urging legislators to move the bill forward in a scheduled hearing Thursday, warning that the union will “monitor and track” their votes.
Many casino workers have been pushing for three years to close a loophole in the state's public smoking law that specifically exempts casinos from a ban. Despite overwhelming bipartisan support from lawmakers, and a promise from the state's Democratic governor to sign the measure, it has been bottled up in state government committees without a vote to move it forward.
The same state Senate committee that failed to vote on the bill last month is due to try again on Thursday. Fain's letter to the state Senate and Assembly was timed to the upcoming hearing.
The casino industry opposes a ban, saying it will cost jobs and revenue. It has suggested creating enclosed smoking rooms, but has refused to divulge details of that plan.
“Thousands of UAW members work as table game dealers at the Caesars, Bally’s, and Tropicana casinos in Atlantic City, and are exposed on a daily basis to the toxic harms of secondhand smoking,” Fain wrote in a letter sent last week to lawmakers. “Patrons blow cigarette/tobacco smoke directly into their faces for eight hours, and due to the nature of their work, table dealers are unable to take their eyes away from the table, so they bear through the thick smoke that surrounds their workplace.”
Fain rejected smoking rooms as a solution, calling the suggestion “preposterous," and said it will oppose any amendment allowing anything less than a total ban on smoking in the casinos.
Currently, smoking is allowed on 25% of the casino floor. But those spaces are not contiguous, and are scattered widely throughout the premises.
At a Nov. 30 hearing in the state Senate, several lawmakers said they are willing to consider smoking rooms as a compromise.
The Casino Association of New Jersey did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Nor did state Sen. Joseph Vitale, chairman of the committee that will conduct this week's hearing.
Chris Moyer, a spokesperson for the Atlantic City casino workers who want a smoking ban, said similar movements are underway in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Kansas, Michigan and Nevada, and noted Connecticut’s casinos are already smoke-free. Shreveport, Louisiana ended a smoking ban in its casinos in June.
“Workers should leave work in the same condition they arrived,” Fain wrote. “Union. Non-union. Factory, office, casino, or any workplace in between, worker safety must be the #1 goal of every employer and worker throughout the state.”