The high cost of low-wage work in Nevada


Last week closed with sunshine in the sky and ice on the ground, a fitting illustration of the difference between life in the suites and life on the street.

If you believed Peter Jennings and his colleagues at Mickey Mouse's TV network last Friday, you and your kids never had it so good.

Jennings and company aired a long segment on the benefits of being born in 1976. This year's 22 year-old college grads can write their own tickets to good paying jobs with bright futures—if you believe what you see on TV.

An effusive Jennings positively gushed that after serving as an indentured, intern...a business major can start out at the princely sum of $29,700 per year. Liberal arts majors make almost as much. Unemployment is even down among minorities which consistently find work harder to find.

Economist Allen Sinai said "it's the closest thing to worker heaven we've had in decades." (Weren't communist countries often derided as workers' paradises not so long ago?)

Down on the street where real people live, things are different.

The "news report" in question came from the corporation which sells tickets to Fantasyland. ABC News made no mention of all the older workers being fired and replaced with cheaper, younger employees. Forty- and fifty-somethings are finding themselves disposable.

A court recently found it perfectly alright to fire older workers in favor of younger ones if saving money, not age discrimination, is given as the reason. Talk about a distinction without a difference.

Here in the High Desert Outback of the American Dream, workers are interchangeable parts.  Proceed at your own risk should you dare try to better your lot. Woe to those who commit acts destructive of the established order - such as acting in the interests of others.

It is thus with rare pleasure that I bring you a rare win for the good guys, courtesy of two courageous women.

Regular readers will remember the sad tale of Carlene O'Neil of Carson City and Jessica Gomes of Gardnerville. (See the Barbwires of August 17 and 24, 1997.)

Both were fired last August by Bently Nevada, a cruel corporation based in wealthy Douglas County, 60 miles south of Reno. Their crime: asking co-workers to sign for UPS deliveries during last summer's Teamsters strike.

Neither is a union member. Both are U.S. Marine Corps veterans, taught to stand up for what they know is right.

"We were raised that you don't cross picket lines. Signing for a package would have been like doing that. You're taking bread and butter out of people's mouths if you do it," Gomes said last August.

"I really loved my job," O'Neil said. "It's tough when you're 56 and have to put down on an application that you were terminated from your last job," O'Neil said at the time.

Little did she know how hard it would be. Carlene O'Neil was unable to find work until Dec. 22 when she started running change. Mrs. Gomes had already been doing casino work at the time of her firing. Unable to make enough at Bently to support her children and disabled husband, she took a second job running keno where she still works today.

"It's tough to go from $9 an hour to $5, especially when I had to work two jobs before anyway," she said.

Gomes and O'Neil are perhaps the last casualties still bleeding from the UPS strike. The Teamsters won, people went back to work, UPS just announced tremendous profits.

The ex-Bently ladies twisted slowly in the wind. From every part of the state, Nevada union members chipped in to help. (Contributions can still made through the Operating Engineers Federal Credit Union in Reno or Elko. Direct them to the attention of Stacy DeMartin, 1290 Corporate Blvd., Reno NV 89502. Please note that your donation is for the Gomes-O'Neil Family Fund.)

Most people never achieve greatness or recognition. Many only pave the way for others who follow. Too often, those who pave the way end up run into the ground.

"I am positive I would not have been treated in this manner if Bently Nevada employees were allowed to be part of their own union to protect workers' rights," Ms. O'Neil wrote in a letter I read to the Nevada AFL-CIO convention last fall.

Like many oppressive employers, Bently Nevada openly disrespects the right to work and organize. Their employee manual says "we will oppose by all moral and legal means, any attempt by a union to interfere with the fine relationships which now exists (sic) within our Company."

Bently help-wanted ads contain an unintentionally comic oxymoron: "We maintain a non-union, smoke-free, drug-free environment. EOE (equal opportunity employer)."

Apparently, equal rights are cool, but worker rights are treated like drug addictions.

Bently even fought the womens' claims for unemployment compensation. Teamsters lawyers appealed and won.

The National Labor Relations Board, which is supposed to protect workers' rights, sided with the company in the wrongful termination action which followed.

The feds ruled that the two women were not engaging in legally protected union activity. There were no UPS picket lines at Bently. No union was trying to organize the company at the time. (The company had beaten back the Teamsters in the past.)

"If that were allowed to stand, you could never have a union organizing drive anywhere," Teamsters attorney Larry Yenko told me last week.

A Bently executive trashed the women in a memo to their former co-workers, stating "they do not wish to take responsibility for their actions...From the Company perspective, they were risking the well being of all Bently Nevada people, and our relationship with our customers...When the local union leadership no longer finds them useful they will be cast aside in favor of a more current issue," the company memo states.

It then launches into a tirade against unions using the usual movie clichés:

"We will continue to protect the well being of our people and our customers by doing the 'right things' even when it may not be politically correct," the company memo concludes in clumsy imitation of hate radio's Lush Rambo.

The Teamsters did not walk away. They ordered their attorneys to appeal to the NLRB in Washington.

"The U.S. Supreme Court (in 1984) held that concerted activities need not involve labor organizations or their members directly, only that the employees join together for common goals," Yenko asserted in appealing the NLRB western regional decision not to pursue the case.

"Both Ms. Gomes and Ms. O'Neil expressed support for the goals and position of the UPS drivers," Yenko stated, "and they undertook concerted activities to support those drivers by refusing to sign for packages when the UPS drivers were on strike. This is activity reasonably designed to assist a labor organization in its goal of improving workers rights, a goal enunciated by both Ms. Gomes and Ms. O'Neil.

"Bently Nevada violated (federal labor law) and is guilty of unfair labor practices. The regional director's decision not to issue a complaint is in error as a matter of law," Yenko's appeal concluded.

The odds were huge, less than a three percent chance at that level. I didn't have the heart to relate that fact to these courageous, struggling ladies. As the months went by, I tried not to think about it.

Last Wednesday, the always cheerful Carlene O'Neil called me. She had just heard from the feds. The ladies had beaten the odds and won. Bently can either reinstate them with full back pay and benefits, or face federal trial on charges of illegal termination.

For one brief, shining moment, the sun in the sky melted the cruel ice on the ground.

TRIAL, TOO: The Reno Hilton goes on trial this Tuesday morning, March 10, at 9:00 a.m. on charges of illegally firing its entire security staff for unionizing. It will be held before a federal judge in building 43 at the University of Nevada-Reno College of Education.

BLUE LIGHT SPECIAL: The federal trial of the Sparks K-Mart Distribution Center on charges of illegal unfair labor practices, also scheduled to start this week, has been postponed. Last year, a vote of warehouse mechanics ended in a 15-15 tie with one challenged ballot. Operating Engineers Local 3 has since expanded its organizing efforts to include most of the sprawling facility.

Be well.  Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a Reno-based syndicated columnist, a 29-year Nevadan, editor of U-News and campaign manager for Democratic candidate for Governor, State Senator Joe Neal.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 3/8/98.