Right to fire & evil twin spawned 50 years ago today

From the 7-4-99 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune
UPDATED 8-20-2007, 1-29-2012

The Fourth of July will always be tarnished for Nevada workers. Monday, July 4, 1949, marked the moment they began morphing from people into interchangeable parts.


      RENO (8-20-2007) —Because of management stonewalling (standing fast on an offer of a measly 13-cent per hour raise!), Culinary Local 226 has scheduled strike votes on Aug. 30 for its members at the Grand Sierra (formerly the Reno Hilton, northern Nevada's largest gambling property) and Circus Circus in downtown Reno. MORE

Deja vu all over again
— More than 600 union protestors line up at Circus Circus to march through downtown Reno on 2-18-2000 in support of Culinary Union contract negotiations. Current Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor led the workers.

In an attempt to win fair wages, members of the Culinary Union walked off the job on what was then Sparks-Reno's busiest weekend of the year.

Tourists were nonetheless well-treated at strike and non-strike establishments. People remained fairly amicable while visitors were here.

Some of the richest men in town, including legendary developer and political power broker Norman Biltz, worked as strikebreaking bartenders. They high-heartedly announced they would donate their wages to the strikers. The matter was settled by July 8.

The new contract called for fry cooks at first-tier gambling halls to earn $1.375 per hour. A captain or hostess would earn $1.00 per hour.

That was almost 700 points down the consumer price index.

Northern Nevada wage scales today remain lower than 1949 union rates, adjusted for inflation.

According to the Nevada Employment Security Dept., the average restaurant cook in Reno makes about $8.50 per hour. Her Gomorrah South counterpart earns about $10.00.

In 1949, their Reno ancestors made a union rate equal to $9.27. Las Vegas will almost always average higher than Reno today due to the much higher degree of union penetration in Southern Nevada. (The figures are for 1997, the most recent year available.)

Maybe tips were lower in 1949. A Nineties bartender in Reno averages $6.85 an hour, $8.43 in Las Vegas. A 1949 Reno mixologist earned $10.32 adjusted for inflation.

A modern era Reno host averages about $6.50 an hour, a Las Vegan gets about $8.00. When grandpa met grandma in Reno in 1949, a host was making $6.74 union scale, adjusted for inflation. [1]

What went wrong?

Rep. Walter Baring, D-Nev., delivered a warning at the 1949 Sparks Labor Day celebration held in "B" Street Park. (They may call it Victorian Blvd. today, but to me, it will always be "B" Street.)

"The Taft-Hartley law takes away 'the hard-won rights' of labor and in their place clamps handcuffs on the union man and the union,'" Baring said, according to the September 6, 1949, Reno Evening Gazette.

"Mr. Baring spoke of the need for proper employer-management relations using Sparks as an example of a 'wholesome and healthy relationship' between the two," the Gazette continued.

Today, Baring Blvd. snakes through a Sparks filled with union demonstrations as increasingly frustrated workers shout to high heaven for a fair piece of the pie.

It was not always thus. In 1927, the Reno Chamber of Commerce published a commemorative book for the Nevada Transcontinental Highways Exposition held in Idlewild Park.

For that event, the Golden State built the California Building which still stands today.

"Labor conditions in Reno are ideal," the chamber of commerce gushed. "With the close bond between the buyer and seller of labor, strikes are unknown in Reno...All trades in Reno are on a union basis."

WORKERS MARCH FOR JUSTICE — Northern Nevada union members and their families march with hotel and restaurant workers in front of the Reno Flamingo Hilton in April of 1995. In 1994, Carpenters Hotel-Casino Workers Local 777/AFL-CIO won the first contested election for a large group of Reno hotel workers since the old Riverside Hotel in 1974. The Flamingo stonewalled negotiations with the Carpenters, but in 1999 agreed to recognize Culinary Local 86 to represent most of its non-gambling employees. Alas, Hilton sold the hotel shortly thereafter. Workers at the now-Golden Phoenix have no union contract.

What happened to that well-paid workers paradise of which Congressman Baring spoke in 1949?

The Republican-controlled congress in 1947 passed the Taft-Hartley Act over President Harry Truman's veto. It allowed states to enact what became known as right-to-work laws.

The "Committee of One Thousand" formed to break the 1949 Culinary Fourth of July strike became the nucleus of a petition campaign which succeeded in narrowly passing Nevada's right-to-work law in 1952.

That measure forces unions to treat non-dues-paying non-members as union members in most respects. Non-union members receive union-negotiated wages and benefits. Unions must represent non-members in grievance and disciplinary procedures.

Forced to provide services without compensation, labor organizations have gradually weakened over the decades. Everyone's wages reflect that erosion.

I have always felt that "right to work" laws represent an illegal taking of private property without compensation under the Fifth Amendment to our Constitution.

I think people should be able to voluntarily join unions, but their unions should not be forced to spend member dues money serving non-members who take a free ride on the labor of others.

Wages have not been the only casualty.

Nevada progressives recently shocked the country by winning passage of a law adding sexual orientation to the list of employee classes protected against discrimination. One lobbyist was amazed to find herself "in the majority on this one."

Top gun gambling industry lobbyists, acting as individuals, even testified in favor of the bill. The new governor signed it into law. No one has noticed that if it made any difference, it would never have passed.

Right-to-work has an equally evil twin. Nevada is a fire-at-will state where people may be terminated for no reason at all. Workers, gay or otherwise, have always been treated the same — as disposable.

If somebody doesn't like the color of your eyes, your skin or your consort, you can be fired without recourse. State supreme court decisions basically legalized age discrimination a decade ago.

Nevada workers stand so low today that they have no rights without a personal or union contract.

Fifty years ago today marked the beginning of the end of Nevada as a decent place to work. Paychecks and dignity have dwindled accordingly.

Happy Independence Day.
Don't spend your good fortune all in one place.

Be well. Raise hell.


More about the lack of Nevada workers' rights

Barbwire 1-29-2012

Conservative lawsuit could return Right-to-Work to the voters
Barbwire 11-23-03

Hitting on 16 — Nevada workers have the right to lose
Barbwire 7-11-99

History of Right-to-Work-for-Less in Nevada

[1] The average Las Vegas bartender pay
in the above 1999 article is a state-calculated average.
LV union scale today stands much higher — $13.54 an hour by 2001.

Copyright © 1999-2005, 2006, 2007, 2012 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413. He is a 30-year Nevadan, editor of U-News and head of Casinos Out of Politics (COP). In 1998 he served as gubernatorial campaign manager for State Senator Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas.
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