Sub-minimum wage work widespead in Nevada
Special to Johnny Gunn and D. Brian Burghart's

The Royal House of Bush has been rightly and roundly condemned for cynically using the recent hurricane disasters to further its aristocratic ideological goals. Providing health care to all Gulf Coast refugees might spawn a model for national health insurance, so early good intentions were buried with the dead.

Now, the displaced will qualify only up to the level at which they may have been eligible in their home states before Hurricane Katrina. Many were totally shut out under those obsolete guidelines, so they will continue to be refused health care. Doctors treating the displaced have marveled at finding so many advanced chronic diseases among survivors who had no access to health care in their communities.

The Theocratic Tories further used the human disaster to ignore environmental and labor laws. Required area-standard prevailing wages on government-funded construction jobs have been suspended with no guarantee that the lower labor costs won't go directly to corporate crony bottom lines.

Before you express relief that it can't happen here, let me be the first to inform that it not only can, but has for years and continues today. At least two sub-classes of Nevada workers labor for sub-minimum wages.

Farm workers have never been covered under Rooseveltian New Deal federal laws passed in the 1930s. As a result, they can be forced to work for far less than minimum wage.

Labor rights never came to California field laborers at all until the late United Farm Workers leader César Chávez persuaded Gov. Jerry Brown to sign a state-level law in the late 1970s. After Brown left office in 1983, California farm workers were subjected to 16 years of Republican governors (George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson) who refused to enforce the statute.

This is reminiscent of racist President Andrew Jackson's famous defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Well, (Chief Justice) John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it," Jackson legendarily said in defying the court's decision declaring the forced relocation of the Cherokee Nation both unconstitutional and in violation of treaties.

Farm workers in Nevada don't even have a flimsy version of the California statute to fall back on. Last March, in conjunction with the annual César Chávez Day (1) celebration, KAZR TV-46, northern Nevada's Azteca Network affiliate, produced a half-hour special reminiscent of Edward R. Murrow's last and most memorable telecast, his 1960 "Harvest of Shame." KAZR staff journeyed to Fallon, Nevada, to interview Silver State itinerant farm laborers. It was not a pretty picture.

It may come as a mild surprise to a benighted few that farm workers are not the only perfectly legal sub-minimum wage workers in these parts.

"Minimum wage workers today make less than they did in 1968 when inflation is taken into account," I wrote in 2001.

"Someone laboring for $5.15 in 2001 earns the equivalent of $1.02 per hour in 1968 dollars when the minimum wage was $1.60. If that $1.60 had been indexed for inflation, the minimum wage today would be $8.08 per hour. (2)

"Right here in river city, people actually work for less than minimum. I know a guy who makes $3.15 an hour as a casino bellman. 'Tips' from bus tours are added to his salary, giving him $5.15 on paper before deductions. He never sees any tips, he just loads and unloads luggage. The full price of bringing a tour to a hotel is negotiated between the procurer of warm gambling victims and the casino in question. The actual 'tip' figure is never revealed to the 'tipped' worker.

"However, under federal law, that extra two bucks can legally be allocated from some unaccountable tip pool to bring this poor lout up to the hourly minimum. Now, the good folks at the IRS want to hammer this man and his peers for even more income tax witholding on often-mythical earnings from such deals. Some casino workers ask to go home early on slow nights because every hour they stay is a net loss after the government attributes to them 'tip' income which they never receive," I wrote. (3)

This is not speculation. I actually saw this guy's pay stubs and found him a labor lawyer who informed me that such workers are royally screwed.

This all came back to me when I saw an October 3 Las Vegas Sun article which stated that "(a) federal lawsuit filed (Sept. 29) challenges the state's authority to regulate charter buses and moving companies. The suit, filed by the Nevada Transportation Coalition and the Nevada Motor Transport Association, argues that federal law supersedes state law.

"The coalition says the state has been looking into companies' records to judge their 'business fitness.' Sandra Avants, chairman of the state Transportation Services Authority, said this issue has been researched thoroughly and the agency's regulation of the industry is appropriate. The state looks at business records to prove that a company has the proper insurance.

"The issue of state regulation over the industry has been contentious for years and came up during this year's legislative session. A bill that would have removed the state's authority over charter buses and moving companies failed," the Sun reported. (4)

Hoteliers and bus companies have been exploiting their workers for many years. Now they want out of what weak regulation may still be on the books.

Every year or two, some Nevada tour bus crashes and kills people, but who cares? It's easy to get more tourists.

So farm workers and baggage porters enjoy the right to work for less and the status quo abides here on the Sagebrush Plantation.

Be well. Raise hell.


1. 2005 César Chávez Celebration

2. Today's minimum wage has shrunk to 91 cents in 1968 dollars. That year provides the best benchmark because it is generally recognized as the U.S. economy's all-time peak. We've been eating our seed corn ever since as the federal government has eroded progressive taxation and increased burdens on all but the wealthy. It is little wonder that a constitutional amendment to increase Nevada's minimum wage by $1 passed so handily last November. Poll after poll shows that Americans really do understand the corrosive effects of inflation.

     The $1.60 per hour minimum wage of 1968 would be $9.03 today if adjusted for the Consumer Price Index.

3. Barbwire by Barbano, The Daily Sparks Tribune, 22 April 2001

4. Las Vegas Sun, 10-3-2005

    At deadline, the Nevada Motor Transport Association had not responded to an Oct. 5 written request for a copy of its legal filing and more information. | U-News
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Copyright © 2001, 2005 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 36-year Nevadan and editor of Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.

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