State of the unions — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Special Internet Edition compiled between July and September, 2002
Updated in November, 2002
Updated 3-5-2006


AT THE TOP — Where some Nevada unions still haven't learned all the features of their fax machines, Nevada State AFL-CIO Executive Secretary-Treasurer Danny Thompson is one very wired guy. His palm pilot political precinct management system, which he developed in 2000, got national press attention as well as queries from labor organizers nationwide as to how to replicate it. As you will note below, organized labor IS the Democratic Party in Nevada. If so, while Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev, is its leader de jure, Thompson is its leader de facto.

IN THE RANKS — Northern Nevada unions have long been viewed as weak. However, after a decade of hard work, the northern Nevada building trades unions —despite the depredations of the breakaway Carpenters — have surged to power unseen since the 1920's when, as the Reno Chamber of Commerce stated in an official 1927 publication, "all trades in Reno are on a union basis."

The Building and Construction Trades Council of Northern Nevada now enjoys rising political and organizing power. Painters and Allied Trades Local 567 was recently singled out for the biggest percentage (25 percent) membership increase in the entire international union.

Last year, "The Flagger Moms of Orange Cone Hell," a longrunning TV campaign which I produced for Reno-based Laborers' Union Local 169, took first place honors in the National Safety Council's nationwide road construction zone safety competition.

BY THE NUMBERS — The United States has the most repressive labor laws in the industrialized world. U.S. union membership peaked after WWII, when about 35 percent of the workforce was unionized. Today, only about 13.4 percent is unionized. When public employees are subtracted, U.S. unions have fallen below ten percent of the private workforce. In Canada, where, if a majority of workers sign cards saying the want a union, they get one, the country remains at the post-WWII level of about 35%. In this country, more than 10,000 firms are in the lucrative business of union busting.

Nevada is the bellweather of U.S. union growth. I've seen numbers showing 16 percent to 20 percent of Nevada's workforce as unionized. The stats will vary depending on several factors, e.g., the number of people working in construction and mining at any given time. Those fields attract workers who will move to Nevada when work becomes available. Another factor in the numeric fluctuation — some independent unions don't show up in some counts, e.g., the unheralded Churchill County Telephone Employees Association. which just agreed on a new contract with the Fallon-based local phone company. (Lahontan Valley News, 7-27-2002) The Nevada State AFL-CIO is comprised of 165,000 union members and retirees, but some unions, notably the Carpenters, are not affiliated. Neither are many police and fire unions, large and small. The huge Nevada teachers union is also an island unto itself.


SHORT ATTENTION SPAN THEATRE — Labor's short-term thinking in endorsing Republican Gov. Dudley Do-Right (thus giving him money which he can use to elect anti-union lawmakers), will come back to bite the movement on the ass big time. (UPDATE — It did just that, as Guinn poured hundreds of thousands into the campaigns of anti-worker candidates. Here's a detailed list.)

As you will note below, should Guinn oppose Sen. Reid in 2004, Guinn's 2002 union endorsement will make Guinn the favorite in the 2004 race, notwithstanding labor's sure endorsement of Reid two years hence.


THE PREDATORS UNION — The renegade Carpenters Union is well on its way toward destroying the labor movement by gutting its brother construction unions. The predators have begun campaigns in Las Vegas and Phoenix, as well as in other markets across the nation, to pay off contractors who will hire carpenters to perform the work of every other building trades union. Instead of organizing the 90 percent of workers who are non-union, the Carpenters want to subsume the 10 percent who already are. Carpenters General President Douglas McCarron has rightly been called a corporate takeover CEO who just happens to run a major labor organization.

AT THE CROSSROADS — Las Vegas Culinary Local 226

As Yogi Berra would say, when you get to a fork in the road, take it. The Culinary Union could use such sage advice.

Despite General President John Wilhelm and the national union running interference for the gambling-industrial complex at every hearing of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission (NGISC), the Las Vegas hotel industry did not hesitate to fire 15,000 (mostly union) employees immediately after Sept. 11. They didn't really have to, and several thousand have yet to be re-hired.

As genius-comedienne Lily Tomlin once opined, no matter how cynical you become, it's hard to keep up.

The LV casinos cynically tried to use 911 to bust the union. They tried to get the union to okay part-time and other scheduling procedures in violation of its own contracts. The clubs made a big deal in the media that non-union establishments, such as the Station Casinos outfit, had few if any layoffs due to their non-union "flexibility."

What was never reported: depending on each hotel's contract language, and especially if what's known as a "zipper clause" was included therein, any renegotiation of any portion of the contract could well have triggered reopening negotiations on the entire contract. (Once you unzip the zipper, everything inside falls out onto the negotiating table.)

The gambling industrial complex would have liked nothing more than to force Culinary into full-blown renegotiation in September, 2001, with the world, the city, the workers and the union in complete disarray.

Unions are not enemies of management, but they should always be the worthy adversaries of management. The gambling industry certainly showed itself as an ingrate for the labors of the Culinary Union on management's behalf with NGISC.

The union showed new aggressiveness in its contract negotiations this year. I hope that its new adversary attitude continues. Las Vegas casinos can well afford to do much better by their union and non-union workers.

Union-endorsed Gov. Guinn supports union-busting law

(EDITOR'S NOTE — I wrote the following for union members who know what a right-to-work law is. While there is really no such thing as a "right to work" in a free society, the catchy label has been very sellable in getting employees to vote against their own interests. Such laws, now extant in 22 states, force unions to spend members' money representing workers who don't pay union dues. This is a principal reason for the erosion of union strength since the federal enabling legislation — the infamous Taft-Hartley Act — was passed in 1947. Click here for a quick summary. )

NEWS ITEM (June 26, 2002) — The Mandalay Resorts casino corporation (Circus-Circus, Silver Legacy, Luxor, Excalibur and others) has been sponsoring a statewide live call-in talk TV show for Gov. Kenny Guinn, R, on the Reno (KNPB TV-5) and Las Vegas (KLVX TV-10) Public Broadcasting System (PBS) stations.

      On the June 26 telecast, a Las Vegas caller named Steven asked Gov. Guinn his position on Nevada's Right-to-Work Law. Guinn responded that in all his years as a corporate executive and in public life, he has always strongly supported the statute. He quickly added that Nevada labor unions strongly support his re-election this year.

Alas, both of Guinn's statements are correct. Notwithstanding Gov. Dudley Do-Right's endorsement of the most powerful union-busting tool in the management arsenal, Nevada organized labor has overwhelmingly endorsed his re-election this year against Democratic nominee, State Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas. Neal has been Nevada's most consistently pro-labor lawmaker since his first election in 1972.

Neal was arrested with striking Culinary workers during the six-year Frontier Hotel strike. In 1997, the Nevada State AFL-CIO state convention honored him with its Lifetime Commitment Award.

This year's going gushy over Guinn is simple to understand — almost no one thinks Neal can win, so bend over to the power and hope the inevitable won't hurt too much.

To the uninitiated in the statewide television audience, Gov. Dudley Do-Right made it sound as though he is a champion of the working class. Even if it doesn't exist — and it doesn't — who could possibly criticize a guy who favors the mythical Constitutional Right to Work?


Barbwire Labor Day column, 9-1-2002


November 3, 2002

November 10, 2002

November 17, 2002

November 24, 2002

Ignorance is bliss for the underpaid and unprotected, but a few people know better.

Howls of protest should have gone up from all precincts from those who understand the issues and the codewords.

Alas and alack, so far Nevada labor has responded with the silence of the lambs.

Guinn has already gone out of his way to make lamb chops out of labor unions. In one of his first official acts as governor, he appointed a totally inexperienced individual as labor commissioner. Terry Johnson then promptly proceeded to make radical changes in the gathering of information for the annual state prevailing wage survey which determines pay rates on government construction projects.

For the past three years, Nevada construction unions have been in a constant defensive battle to protect the prevailing wage base — the bedrock of all skilled wages in Nevada — against Johnson's goofy and uninformed whims.

This guy is so dumb he actually thinks he's helping the working man. In the Aug. 8, 2002, Las Vegas Sun, Johnson expended a thousand words about his and Gov. Guinn's defense of the average worker. Almost as an aside at the very end, he pats himself on the back for doing the guv's bidding: "Gov. Kenny Guinn reminded me on my first day of work to 'strive to make government better and not bigger' (by) revising antiquated labor laws and regulations."

UPDATE 3-4-2006

Nevada Supreme Court issues major ruling further damaging state prevailing wage law

Contradictory language of poorly written decision may render it useless for employers but useful for unions

Read much more about it

Had not northern Nevada construction unions fought Johnson's attempts to change the method of reporting prevailing wage rates, area-standard construction pay would today be no more than a fond memory in some musty union museum.

In any region, the benchmark for the worth of anyone's labor is set by the wages earned by the skilled trades. For every 10 percent increase in unionization in an area, the average wage rises by about five percent. A threat to the basic wage of the skilled trades endangers the wage base of the entire community. (See "What Do Unions Do" by Medoff and Freeman, Harvard University Press, 1987.)

Such is the threat posed by the ongoing assault against wages by the state official in charge of policing that workers are paid fairly.

Johnson has also attempted more insidious maneuvers to bust unions. He recently attempted to enact a regulation to make himself the ultimate arbiter of the scope of work allowed to any skilled craft. In other words, rather than unions of skilled workers and their employers deciding what delineates the difference between a carpenter and a painter/taper, Johnson would have arrogated that power to himself. This would have represented a sea change in the normal business practices of the construction industry and perhaps any other workplace.

This would also have played into the hands of the renegade Carpenters Union, which broke from the AFL-CIO in order to attempt to monopolize the construction trades. They have already mounted efforts in Las Vegas and Phoenix to subsidize contractors who will hire carpenters to perform the work of other unions.

A serious offensive by northern Nevada building trades unions has so far stopped Mr. Johnson cold in the scope of work area. What will happen after November is anyone's guess.

The Carpenters were among the earliest supporters of Guinn's re-election.

State employees, starved for both pay raises and respect for a decade under Dixiecrat Gov. Bob Miller, have trampled each other in the rush to support Guinn because of his promise to sign a bill granting collective bargaining rights to state workers. Guinn knows very well that such a bill would never get out of the Republican-controlled Nevada State Senate, headed by the union-hating Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno. Even should Raggio be replaced by Sen. Ann O'Connell, R-Las Vegas, no change in the GOP's attitude and policies toward labor will result.

In the case of state workers, their support of Guinn is understandable. A few drops of water and crumbs of bread seem precious to a dying and dehydrated refugee in the high desert.

However, political pandering should not be construed as respect. Despite finally winning long-sought and well-deserved pay increases three years after supporting Guinn's 1998 election, morale at the Nevada Highway Patrol has sunk to its lowest ever. This bizarre turn of events has resulted from the adversary relationship between NHP troopers and Guinn administration leadership under former Reno Police Chief and Washoe County Sheriff Richard Kirkland.

When the NHPA was rebuffed at the 1999 legislative session, they signed on to support Sen. Joe Neal's initiative petition to increase the gross gaming tax. Guinn publicly warned them that they would have no seat at the table if they opposed his tax policies. The NHPA caved and withdrew its 17-county support of Neal, foredooming his petition to failure. Neal, never a vindictive person, supported NHPA's successful 2001 attempt at pay parity with higher-paid Nevada law enforcement agencies.

But the NHPA rightly feels besieged by Director Kirkland. He recently suspended the NHPA president for trivial reasons.

Gov. Guinn showed his true attitude toward unions when he tried to eliminate my union's jobs at the state printing office last year. The longest-established union contract in the state, dating back to Mark Twain's days on the Comstock Lode, is held by the workers in the state printing office, now part of Communications Workers of America Local 9413. Under the spell of the Reaganesque buzzword of privatization, Guinn tried to eliminate this critical government function. The proposal was so potentially crippling to state government that the Nevada Supreme Court and even Raggio himself opposed it. (Click here to read the full story.)

Guinn has also tried to privatize unionized health care jobs in the state prison system, another proposal successfully fought by the same State of Nevada Employees Association which gave Guinn $5,000 at the June 2002 Nevada AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education (COPE) convention at Luxor Las Vegas.

Many of Nevada's unions seem to be approaching the political equivalent of battered wife co-dependency in their relationship with the governor.

The dangers of accommodation unionism are very real. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association did in 1980 what the Nevada Highway Patrol Association did in 1998. Within three months of taking office, President Ronald Reagan fired all of the controllers for striking. Most never got their jobs back.

The Nevada Highway Patrol Association, well-paid while being well-beaten, endorsed Guinn again this year. Go figure.

As CWA Local 1037 Executive Vice-President Hetty Rosenstein recently wrote in Labor Notes magazine, "unionism built on personal relationships and personal political debt does not challenge the power relationship and does not take power away from the boss, or the politician, and redistribute it to union members. It essentially persuades the boss or politician that it is in his/her self-interest to act in a way that the union wants. The boss chooses to do it, and retains the power to choose otherwise at another time."

Nevada labor leaders have taken great pains to tell their members that loss of the Democratic majority in the State Assembly would lead to a gutting of the Nevada union movement. Not once have I ever heard ANYONE say that supposedly labor-friendly Gov. Guinn would stop such a bludgeoning at the hands of a totally Republican legislature.

Has anyone even asked, now that he'll be taking labor money and support?

Remember what Sister Rosenstein said: "The boss...retains the power to choose otherwise at another time." Like after the November election, long about the time his long-postponed tax review is due on his desk.

Nevada labor's rolling over for Guinn will result in union members statewide being informed this year to vote for the Republican governor, that he's labor's man, a great guy. Should he choose to oppose U.S. Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., in 2004, he can proceed aglow with the aura of union approval no matter who labor endorses.

The Democratic Party in Nevada is organized labor, just as it was when John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers invented the modern Democratic Party in supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt's re-election in 1936.

Now, as then, when a Democrat's base with organized labor has been cracked, get set for a brutal fall in late Fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men won't be able to put Humpty together again when he gets dumptied for Dudley.

Only a spirited race at the top of the ticket can blunt the GOP weapon of massive turnout this November. The governor's handlers are nothing if not a smug but very insecure bunch. A hardball gubernatorial contest will also force the governor to spend some of his millions on himself rather than on anti-union Republican legislative candidates.

It is a travesty and a tragedy that labor will be handing union members' money to a governor free to use some of it to elect anti-worker Republicans. (UPDATE — Prediction comes true. Here's a detailed list.)

Many union and party leaders may want to concede the race to Guinn, but Sen. Neal's refusal to go quietly into that surrender must be respected and supported.

If you labor under the Guinn-reinforced delusion that the Right-to-Work Law is beneficial to workers, please click here for the rudest of rude awakenings.

And inform your brothers, sisters and friends of the myth of Gov. Dudley Do-Right as a friend of labor.

Happy Labor Day anyway.

Andrew Barbano, 33-year Nevadan
Member, Communications Workers of America Local 9413/AFL-CIO
Editor, and
Withdrawn in good standing member of Culinary Local 226-Las Vegas
Transferred in good standing member and formerly organizer for Culinary Local 62-Fresno

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Copyright © 2002, 2006. 2011 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 33-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of and He hosts Deciding Factors on several Nevada television stations. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.)Tribune since 1988.

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