Cigarette smoking has often been a subversive act, especially at work. Gregory John Wood perceptively positions cigarette smoking within a working-class culture of defiance. Industrial workers often claimed the power to interrupt work for cigarette breaks, to smoke and work simultaneously, and to limit the boss's authority over their bodies. Smoking cultures were a “wellspring of working-class resistance to many of the demands of modern work” (p. 5). Employers, in turn, posted smoking bans on or near job sites, hired spies to monitor employee smoking habits, punished worker-smokers, and even experimented with total abstinence from nicotine as a condition of employment. Clearing the Air deftly integrates labor and business history with the histories of tobacco and public health during the cigarette century. Tapping the extensive Legacy Tobacco Documents Collection at the University of California, San Francisco, and other employer records, Wood carefully reconstructs the politics of workplace cigarette smoking and finds that the activity often sparked broader challenges to employer authority. Early twentieth-century smokers defied Progressive Era moralizers and employers bent on regimenting their industrial labor force. During World War II, demands for smoking fueled labor militancy in a number of industrial workplaces. Those confrontations achieved success for smokers. Workers across the postwar American economy came to assume smoking at work as a kind of right. Government interventions and public health reports over the century, however, tended to threaten the activity. Progressive Era factory fires temporarily empowered regulators hoping to limit or ban cigarette smoking at work. Surgeon General reports in 1964 and 1986 spread awareness of the dangers of cigarette smoking and of secondhand smoke. Nonsmokers took heart. In the 1970s the New Jersey Bell Telephone Company employee Donna Shimp, for example, insisted on a nonsmoking environment in an era of smoke-filled work spaces. When her employer and her union rejected her appeals, she launched a pioneering lawsuit. Her case was the first to enlist court power behind a grassroots antismoking movement. By the 1990s, workplace smoking bans were widespread, creating a sense of exile for smokers who refused to quit. Writing with ironic sensitivity, Wood balances portrayals of worker-smokers and nonsmoking activists. Unmoved by antismoking campaigns, postwar worker-smokers experienced bans primarily as unwelcome expansions of managerial authority. With few exceptions, unions defended smokers' rights and decried those employers who defied collective bargaining rules. Frustrated by their exile at the workplace, smokers in the 1980s and 1990s protested, drawing on the language of individual rights. Unlike during World War II, this era did not witness class mobilizations around smoking. “For working people and the labor movement, the politics of smoking proved to be cancerous,” Wood wryly concludes (p. 158). Key questions remain. While links between cigarettes and masculinity appear regularly in the book, Wood pays less attention to the meaning of workplace smoking for women. A gender analysis might enhance our understanding of female nonsmoker and smoker negotiations with male-dominated management and union leadership. Still, Wood has produced a smart study that situates smoking on new historical corners. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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