The Last Picture Show

Expanded from the 2-27-2005 Daily Sparks Tribune
An edited version appears in 3-4-2005 Comstock Chronicle

"Whatsoever you do to these, the least of my brethren, you do also to me." – Jesus of Nazareth

I was burned out on that gloomy February Friday. Worked late. Got up early to read to some Sparks sixth-graders. Jobs had piled up. A typical day until Tom Stoneburner called.


He had been burning more midnight oil than anyone, working to secure food, shelter, clothing and back wages for two dozen out-of-state non-union construction workers who had been stiffed by their employers and stranded in the wilds of Reno.

That afternoon, Stoney was taping an installment of his cable access television show with one of the aggrieved. He wanted me to participate in a companion piece about the status of workers' rights (or lack thereof). On that day, I don't think I would have said yes to anybody but Tom Stoneburner.

Little did I realize that it would be the last time I'd see him on this earth. Stoney was felled by a ruptured aorta 10 days later on Feb. 21 at his Palomino Valley home north of Sparks. He died shortly after being helicoptered to Washoe Medical Center. He was 60 years old.

I can attest to Stoney's around-the-clock activism. For years, monthly meetings of his Alliance for Workers' Rights were scheduled at 7:00 a.m. on Sundays at a Sparks restaurant. That both accommodated shift workers and underscored the reverence Stoney harbored for the value of labor. He raised money to send the body of a man killed on the job east of Sparks back to his relatives in Mexico. He got legislation introduced to improve worker safety. He fought for equal treatment of Latino children by the school system.

We will get two chances to say goodbye, today and tomorrow. His funeral takes place this morning, Feb. 27, at Walton's Funeral Home, 1745 Sullivan Lane north of Oddie Blvd. in Sparks. Viewing begins at 9:00 a.m. with the service from 11:00 to 1:00 p.m. Seating is limited.

"Next to love, the most valuable thing you can give is your labor," political strategist James Carville once said.

Stoney understood that honest labor — precious ticks of your time here on earth — stands sacred. In the more than 10 years I knew him, I never saw him flush with anger until our last day together. Stoney could barely control himself as we taped the TV show. A guy who sticks up a convenience store does 10 to 20, but an employer who steals a hundred thousand dollars from his workers is given a get-out-of-jail-free card. Stoney wanted such conduct criminalized.

He fought the Sparks City Council when authorities criminalized looking for work. Day laborers seeking employment in front of the state casual labor office on Galletti Way were continually rousted by Sparks police. Many could not avail themselves of the services of the state office because it provided no Spanish-speaking workers to assist them. The state finally hired some bilingual staff. The city and Stoney's Alliance for Workers' Rights have had a truce for the past two years.

Tom Alvin Stoneburner was born in San Diego. He was named after Tom W. Johnston, his maternal grandfather, a linotype operator at the San Diego Union-Tribune who was elected president of San Diego Typographical Union 221 (A.F.L.).

Stoney came to Nevada on St. Patrick's Day, 1969. The former U.S. Marine and Mono County deputy sheriff led the life of your average husband and father until his later years when he turned a formerly hot temper toward the defense of the least among us.

"The Alliance was his life and it will continue" his wife, Kathy, told me last week.

I always marveled at Stoney's boundless energy. He worked a full- time security job at Circus Circus and spent his off-hours laboring for the Alliance at no compensation. For him, enhancing the dignity and value of work was a labor of love.

The great comic actor Groucho Marx once told a story about legendary movie producer Irving Thalberg, for whom the lifetime achievement Academy Award is named.

"I think he knew he wouldn't live long," Marx remarked about Thalberg's unparalleled ability to juggle the production of a dozen major motion pictures at once.

I think Stoney had the same feeling. Somehow he knew that a time bomb ticked in his chest and that he wouldn't get to the promised land with us. He certainly paved the way.

The United States has the most repressive labor laws in the industrialized world and things are getting worse on both state and federal levels. Corporate America eats people up, spits them out, then outsources their jobs to Communist China.

Those who want to work on turning it around need look no further than the life of Tom Stoneburner. He brought workers together in a concerted manner — the very definition of unions under federal law — while bypassing the expensive, time-consuming, often perverted and usually unsuccessful election process. Stoney showed how community organizing, public pressure and media savvy could be the most effective techniques of winning respect from employers and governments.

A giant has fallen. His legacy will be judged by what we do with what he taught us.

STONEY MONDAY. The previously announced Feb. 28 memorial service at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Reno will proceed as planned. Attendees will gather at 5:30 p.m. with eulogies at 6:00 p.m. The family has asked that guests bring food for a reception which will follow immediately in the church fellowship hall at W. First and West streets.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to further the work of the Alliance at Number One Booth Street, Reno, NV 89509. Stoney fought not only job discrimination, but educational bias against Hispanic students. This made him a hero to the Latino community, which plans another commemoration in a month or two. Las Vegas union leaders are also scheduling an event.

Those who want to send memorial letters and remembrances may upload them to They will be permanently posted at this website

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Copyright © 1982, 2005 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 36-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of He sits on the City of Reno's Citizens Cable Compliance Committee.

Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.

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