Indoor Fireworks

A Teamster tries to smoke out lawbreakers at Schnucks

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Joe Morgan cuts a strange figure around the backrooms and loading docks of the Schnucks markets, looking like a moon-man in his Home Depot respiratory mask. Some employees roll their eyes and snicker behind his back. After all, the mask looks like something a World War I doughboy would use to protect himself against a sneak attack with mustard gas.

Managers put up with it, although they don't approve. They worry that he'll scare the customers. "They've told me to stay in the backrooms while I'm wearing the mask," says Morgan. "They pray that I don't walk out on the floor."

Joe Morgan doesn't do second-hand smoke.

Morgan hauls milk from a dairy near Lambert Field to various South City and South County Schnucks stores, spending about 30 minutes per stop while cargo is unloaded. It's a good job, milk delivery, and Morgan's been at it for eighteen years -- the first thirteen with Peveley Dairy and the last five with Mid States Dairy, a division of Schnucks.

But the 40-year-old Teamster has a problem with some of the stores on his route: Except for designated smoking areas, no fumar is the rule in the workplace. But away from the customers, in the backrooms and storage areas, Morgan says, they're lighting up. Morgan decries second-hand smoke, which, he contends, not only contributes to respiratory problems but gets in the food in the areas where employees smoke. He even claims to have seen Schnucks employees smoking over food they're processing. "Everybody thinks I'm crazy," says Morgan, an affable 325-pound six-footer who, in his bib overalls, looks as if he just came in from plowing the back 40. "There was a lady the other day at the Crestwood store -- she saw me and asked about the mask. I told her: 'Lady, this is the only way I can breathe fresh air, because the employees are smoking back there.'"

For the last five years, Morgan has agitated to stop employee smoking in Schnucks stores, and he's got the law on his side. He even carries a copy of Missouri's Clean Indoor Air Law in his pocket and has no compunction about reading it, town-crier style, to any store manager he deems noncompliant.

"It's a bullshit law," he says. "The state doesn't enforce it. The [Missouri] Department of Health and Senior Services told me that the local municipality of each store would have to be the one to enforce the law. I would have to call police and file a report -- which I did."

Back in March, Morgan tested the smoking law at the Schnucks in Crestwood, which, he says, is one of the worst offenders. "I called the police from the store," he says. "I told them I had a problem and asked them to please dispatch an officer to write a citation. The officer came right away. He was very polite. He made a report, but he would not write them a citation because he said the law was too vague."

The Missouri Clean Indoor Air Law prohibits smoking in public places except in those designated areas with proper ventilation so nonsmokers will not have to breathe second-hand smoke.

Morgan says that although some Schnucks outlets are in compliance with the law, others are blatantly in violation; managers look the other way as employees smoke impudently in nondesignated areas. "I think the law is pretty clear," says Morgan. "If you allow smoking in the building, it should be in an enclosed section of the building with proper ventilation."

Lori Willis, director of communications for Schnucks, explains that company policy permits smoking during authorized break periods in designated areas of the store. Willis, aware of Morgan and his tireless crusade, adds: "We do our best to ensure the quality of our store environment, and that includes air quality. We take every complaint seriously and do the best to follow up on them. At present, we have not been told [by a state agency] that we need to do anything differently, but we're willing to voluntarily improve."

But Morgan will not be placated with words, only with results. "I've complained to the managers," he says, "told them, 'You're exposing me to one of the worst carcinogens known to man every day and you're not doing anything about it.'"

John Smick, manager of the South City store at Grand and Gravois, says he has no problem with Morgan's wearing a mask in his store but emphasizes that the facility does have a designated smoking area and is in full compliance with the law.

Morgan disagrees. He says that the South City, Concord Village and Crestwood Schnucks do not have closed smoking rooms -- just hallways with fans meant to blow the smoke outside. "But the smoke rises in that area," he insists, "and goes into the store." Even with the mask, Morgan contends, he can smell the smoke. "If I was to do this right," he says, "I'd have an oxygen tank strapped on my back."

Frustrated, he provided the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services with a list of tobacco-related offenses ostensibly committed by Schnucks. In January, Lori Buchanan, public-information coordinator with the Bureau of Health Promotion, wrote to Dianna Pasley, director of food safety for Schnucks Markets, citing Morgan's complaint and warning, "Second-hand smoke kills more than 50,000 people every year."

Morgan also made an ally in Pat Lindsey, director of the Tobacco Control Program at the St. Louis University School of Public Health. Spurred by complaints from Morgan -- and employees of various Schnucks stores -- Lindsey wrote a warning letter to Schnucks.

"If we had a stronger state law, Joe would have a better case," Lindsey says, "but the state law is so flimsy that Schnucks' attorneys are saying, 'We're doing everything the state law requires us to do.' They think they're in compliance."

Lindsey chuckles on hearing that Morgan now dons a mask before entering smoky work areas. "I don't think you can win this battle by being a fanatic," she says. "Our position on smoking cessation has always been pretty middle-of-the-road." Yet, she concedes, Morgan's antics are not unappreciated among the anti-smoking set. Dramatic as it is, maybe the breathing mask will have some effect on curbing renegade smoking. The problem is getting people to take his protest seriously. "Joe has consistently complained about the South Grand store," says Lindsey. "He says employees are smoking there in the dairy and they're not supposed to be, but the management doesn't want to hear from him. In fact, I think he's pissed off enough people that nobody wants to hear from him."

Joe Morgan's parents were active in social and political causes. His father, Joe Morgan Sr., was a multiple-term mayor of Fenton and was once featured on the cover of the RFT because of his outspoken opposition to the EPA incinerator at Times Beach. "We were raised very socialist, very Democratic," says Morgan.

"I chained myself to the union-hall door one time," he says. "Nothing got settled, but the union president told my business rep, he said, 'Jesus Christ, he's got more balls than brains!'"

Another time, he picketed the Bo Beuckman Ford dealership in Ellisville when he believed he'd purchased a lemon. "All I had on the sign was 'Unhappy Customer,' and I had every truck on Manchester Road honking at me, making noise. Then a manager called my boss and told him what I was doing, and he started laughing -- my boss told me this later -- and he said he told them, 'Of all the people you can screw with, Joe Morgan is the last person you want. After the manager talked with my boss, he was out front returning my money and taking back the car."

Morgan says that both his union representative and his boss at Mid States Dairy back him up -- or, at least, are not telling him to cease and desist from using the breathing apparatus. He says, "My boss told me: 'Joe, 99 percent of the people would just let it go, but you're that 1 percent.'"

But Tim Mueller, a manager at Mid States, doesn't want to discuss Morgan's crusade, except to say, "Joe's on his own little mission."

"They won't comply to the law," adds Morgan, "and I can't get the state to help, can't get the police to help. Schnucks won't help." He pauses, thumbs the shoulder strap of his Carhartt bibs. "Look, I'm just a simple man, a nobody. I'm not out to change the world. I just want to change this so I can breathe clean air."

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