Twilight Szony morals: casinos risk lives for profit


Expanded from the 12-19-99
Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

THE EXECUTION OF PAPPY SMITH -- The grand-daddy of them all bites the dust in downtown Reno in the wee hours of Dec. 15, 1999. The "Bandstand" name on the front refers to Dick Clark's American Bandstand, which had occupied an upper floor of the otherwise dark property during its waning years. Completed in 1955, the Quinn Building was home to the major portions of the venerable Harolds Club, founded by Harold Smith, Sr., up the block in 1935. Harrah's north and west towers can be seen next door. (Photo: Debra Reid, Daily Sparks [Nev.] Tribune)

The casino with a heart — an obituary for Harolds Club

"Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss."
— The Who

Harrah's-Reno and surrounding hotels and businesses should have all been ordered closed and evacuated before the 2:00 a.m. implosion of the legendary Harolds Club last Wednesday.

The Harolds destruction ruptured a four-inch, high pressure gas main, forcing the evacuation of Harrah's next door. Guests were rousted from their rooms and ordered onto the street along with hundreds of workers.

Harrah's apparently couldn't care less about safety. The company wanted to clear its new property to make way for an as-yet undetermined use of the land. Harrah's tore down the old Palace Club in the late 1970s with just such intentions. The corner of Center St. and Commercial Row remains a parking lot 20 years later.

Apparently no one in the news media or government asked about the wisdom of allowing people to work and sleep in a high-rise while an inch away, high explosives would be detonated. Did Harrah's warn guests making reservations that they might want to book somewhere else? Harrah's spokesmen were unavailable when I called.

Some apologist even noted to a TV reporter that Nevada's tough fire sprinkler law would have prevented a major disaster.

Reno Fire Marshal Larry Farr said "these things happen."

I don't know about you, but I'm not willing to accept "shit happens" as the official excuse for what could have turned into a holocaust.

Nevada got the toughest fire sprinkler law in the world only after more than 100 people died. The Las Vegas MGM Grand had been almost allowed to open with no fire protection at all. Minor precautions like fire doors were installed only after fire chiefs from a convention toured the facility and came away shocked. Insurers were about to list the place as "unprotected."

After 87 unlucky gamblers fried in the 1980 Las Vegas MGM Grand fire, Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, proposed a fire sprinker retrofit law. Only millionaire maverick Sen. Bill Hernstadt, D-Las Vegas, signed on as co-sponsor. Cooked people or not, the gambling industry would allow no such expensive legislation. Neal's bill was as DOA as MGM victims.

While the 1981 legislature was still in session, an arsonist torched some drapes at the Las Vegas Hilton. The fire killed over a dozen more. All of a sudden, senators began to line up to sponsor Neal's bill. He would allow no latecomers. The toughest fire code in the world passed over the objections of a brutish and greedy industry.

Nothing's changed. Downtown Reno casinos and city officials gambled with the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people last Wednesday night and barely lucked out. This is the town that is supposed to manage the construction of a 2.1 mile downtown railroad trench and a new convention center while still conducting business as usual?

Don't bet on it. More soon.

TWILIGHT SZONY. Like spoiled milk which curdles and rises to the top, Ferenc Szony is back running several Reno hotels.

Szony got the ax at the Reno Hilton after a May '96 outbreak of food poisoning made more than 1,000 guests and workers sick. Only Reno NBC affiliate KRNV TV-4 and this column (8-4-96) reported the real cause.

On May 1, 1996, Szony implemented a new zero-tolerance sick leave policy. Every time a worker called in sick, he or she earned one demerit. Seven demerits in a year brought automatic firing.

Sick people started showing up for work in droves. The Centers for Disease Control identified the cause of the Reno Hilton outbreak as "fecal-oral" contamination. People dripping infection from various orifices contaminated food which made diners sick. Even former President George Bush was exposed. The disgusting story went worldwide.

The Reno Gazette-Journal refused to report the personnel policy unless an employee was willing to speak on the record, thus ensuring termination and blackballing in this right-to-work until fired-at-whim state.

Szony got hired by another notorious oppressor of workers, Pete Cladianos at the Sands Regency. A privately held L.A. company last week made a deal to acquire the Reno Flamingo Hilton. Earlier this year, it bought the Comstock and a major share of the Sands. Szony will soon run all three.

He started in Reno at the Flamingo. After destroying employee morale fighting a union election won by non-gaming employees in 1994, Szony got promoted to the big Hilton. They apparently have a taste for curdled cream.

The Flamingo union win by the carpenters represented the first "wall to wall" labor victory in a Reno casino in more than two decades. At the big Hilton, Szony made history again. His security guards became the first in Nevada history to vote to unionize. They were illegally fired in 1997 and ordered reinstated by the second-highest court in the land on Dec. 3, 1999. (See last week's Barbwire column entitled "The Fearless 40.")

Szony will now have the opportunity to go back to his union busting ways. The Culinary Union now represents the same Flamingo workers. Hilton stalled the carpenters for years and would never agree to a contract. Earlier this year, two of every three Flamingo non-gaming employees signed cards wanting union representation. Fifty four percent voted the same way at the Reno Hilton. Talks have stalled at both properties raising the specter of mass protests.

When the Flamingo takeover was announced, the new bosses threw the union question into doubt. In the same breath, they said that the 1,100 employees would not be affected by the ownership change. Which statement should we believe?

That's the gambling overlord mentality. Not even explosions, falling buildings and disease affect people if the dukes of hazard say they don't. No wonder that the safety of guests and legal rights of workers have never much mattered.

Be well. Raise hell.


U-News 1999

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Copyright © 1999, 2007 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of U-News, where the past three years of columns may be accessed. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks Tribune since 1988 where an earlier version of this column appeared on 12/19/99.

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