blondes & unintended consequences
Expanded from the 11-23-2003 Daily Sparks,
Also appeared in the 11-27-2003 Comstock Chronicle
A revised version appeared in Las Vegas CityLife, 12-11-2003
I just became a born-again conservative. It took a concrete blonde to convince me.
Sen. Sandra Tiffany, R-Henderson, proudly proselytizes fiscal overprudence down at the Carson City legislative cathedral.
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The Apostle Tiffany is one of these people whose opinions are so set in cement that they have a hard time removing a coat on a hot day because it involves changing their minds. That's hardcore conservative.
Sen. Tiffany is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed last week. If successful, it would allow Nevada to exceed California for governance by those capable of funding initiative petition drives.
Tiffany and her fellow travelers are currently backing a referendum petition to repeal the tax increases passed by the 2003 legislature with a two-thirds majority. Because it would change an existing law, it requires the signatures of currently registered voters equal to 10 percent of the turnout in the November, 2002, statewide election.
However, an initiative petition, defined as proposing a new law at the polls, carries much more stringent signature requirements. As with a referendum, the 10 percent rule must be followed, In addition, a 10 percent threshold from 13 of Nevada's 17 counties must also be satisfied. Tiffany also wants to circulate a tax-cap initiative and thus desires to change the rules.
The reason Nevada initiatives are so hard to qualify lies in our state's long and sordid history of screwing over its workers.
The new Republican Congress of 1947 passed the Taft-Hartley Act over President Truman's veto. Its purpose was to bust unions and it's done a remarkable job, especially by allowing states to pass "right-to-work" laws. That label was pure marketing genius. The America of the Protestant Work Ethic could not possibly be opposed to the right to work. But such a right doesn't exist in a free society. There is no right to work. (Most people think their mythical "right to work" protects them from wrongful termination. Not so, especially in a fire-at-will state like Nevada where an employer can fire without giving any justification at all. The only protection lies in a union or personal services contract. Most employees have access to neither.)
The Taft-Hartley Act allowed states to pass laws letting employees work in a union shop, with full union pay, benefits and representation, and refuse to pay union dues. How long could you run a store if 40 percent of your customers could walk out with merchandise for free? That's exactly what happens in most union shops. Adding insult to injury, the Taft-Hartley Act requires unions to represent the non-union workers in such areas as grievance proceedings.
In 1947, Taft-Hartley began the erosion of the rights won after a century of struggle, paid for with the blood and the lives of many workers and finally placed into federal law just 12 years earlier.
Nevada's Right-to-Work-for-Less-Law was passed by 1,043 votes in the 1952 general election. Unions circulated initiatives, mostly in Clark and Washoe counties, to place it on the ballot, but again lost at the polls in 1954 and 1956. Big business retaliated by getting the 13-county law passed in 1958. Right-to-work has never been on the ballot since.
The ladder was further pulled up behind the status quo after the 1980 public utility consumer advocate initiative, which I managed for future Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno. Over the next 20 years, corporate Nevada imposed more stringent review of signatures and compressed the time allowed for circulation.
The net result has been to make the Nevada initiative process unworkable save for those with enough money to pay professional out-of-state circulation companies as much as $5.00 per signature.
The right to petition your government is older than western democracy, dating back to at least 1215 when King John Lackland (the former Prince John who oppresses Robin Hood in all the tall tales from Sherwood Forest) was forced to sign the Magna Carta (the "great charter" of liberties) by his own feudal barons.
It exists in the Bill of Rights as part of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, but there is no federal mechanism by which enough signatures can force the government to do something. You can write your congressman till your fingers fall off, but that doesn't mean he will lift one of his.
The mostly western states which allow initiatives and referenda were a product of the Populist/Progressive Era of the late 19th Century.
Organized labor had a chance to get right-to-work on the ballot in 1998. Already energized by an anti-union petition funded by Las Vegas Venetian Resort mogul Sheldon Adelson, unions circulated a contra-measure. (If successful, Adelson would have imposed so much paperwork on union members' political contributions that collecting them would have cost more than they would generate. For organizations created by law and subject to the most stringent of all government regulations, Adelson's initiative proposed a death sentence for an organized labor with no political voice.)
Unions could have circulated two initiatives simultaneously in 1998, one against Adelson and one modifying not repealing "right to work." Nevadans are basically fair and could have been convinced that forcing union members to pay for services to non-members just isn't right. A perfectly legal fee-for-service initiative stood a good chance of getting enough names to make the ballot.
Labor gathered enough signatures on the contra-Adelson petition to qualify, but cut a deal with the casino boss to mutually fold. Neither side's signatures were filed. Labor won a small battle, but retired from the greater war.
Those who proposed the 13-county law in the 1950's had the very correct notion that rural Nevadans might not be too keen on signing a pro-union measure. That's why right-to-work has not seen a ballot since 1956.
If Tiffany and her anti-taxers are successful in blowing out Nevada's 13-county requirement, as a recent federal court decision did to Idaho's similar law, right-to-work could again get on the ballot with signatures from just Washoe and Clark counties.
That's why I'm a born-again conservative, enamored of the concrete blonde and her immovable principles.
If she's successful, it could be the biggest boon to Nevada's low-paid, no-rights workforce in more than half a century.
You go, girl!
Be well. Raise hell.
Copyright © 1982-2003 Andrew Barbano
Andrew Barbano is a 34-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of NevadaLabor.com and JoeNeal.org. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.
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