Three bears break into labor's house



LAS VEGAS—I went to a party in fantasyland but the fairy tale proved dull, indeed. Papa Bear and Mama Bear poured thin gruel. Baby Bear crashed the gate and charmed the crowd, but could not conceal his immaturity. Goldilocks was marked absent and everyone was left longing for a knight on a dark horse.

Thus went the 1997 Nevada AFL-CIO convention last week at the Tropicana down in Gomorrah South. Delegates representing more than 120,000 Nevada workers assembled at the former Tiffany of the Strip. The hotel which in the 1960's gave me my first Nevada job has now become a bit of a faded queen, eclipsed by bigger, flashier properties.

The old Folies Bergere showroom remains pretty much the same, along with some remnants of faded class now cheaply pasted over with pseudo-Disney false fronts. Like much of Las Vegas, the old Tropicana is a building with an obviously bad boob job. Most rubes won't notice because they don't remember pre-plastic reality. The main room show is even a throwback to the past, "The Best of the Folies Bergere," featuring re-treaded segments of various versions of the once world-class extravaganza.

The Tropicana was thus a potentially perfect literary symbol waiting for interpretation. Did she represent organized labor trying to refresh a tired act? Not really. Unlike other parts of the country, unions already stand renewed here in the High Desert Outback of the American Dream. Where they represent only some 14 percent of the workforce nationally, a full 25 percent of Nevadans now labor with union cards in their pockets.

So who fit the tired Tropicana analogy? I submit Goldilocks and the Three Bears, political players purloining porridge from a house in which they really didn't belong.

Papa bear was played by pretty Kenny Guinn, the over-rated mogul with the movie star looks who came before the convention to connect with the commoners. Mama Bear's part went to Nevada attorney general Frankie Sue Del Papa, who has for years taken worker votes for granted because of the "D" after her name.

PAPA BEAR: The annual labor confab became the debutante ball of wealthy Las Vegas businessman Guinn. Although he has neither sought nor held public office, he sports more than a million bucks in his campaign war chest.

As a wise old Nevada judge told me long ago, a few hundred grand can go a long way toward making just about anybody a respectable citizen. By that standard, we have an awesome figure, indeed, in the former S&L and Southwest Gas CEO, Clark County School District super and two-time-temp-UNLV president.

Guinn started off telling of his humble beginnings with his family of itinerant farm workers in the sweaty San Joaquin Valley. He told a gut wrenching story of the family's humiliating loss of a day's pay from a cruel farmer. "I'll never forget the expression on my father's face as we left," Guinn said, launching into a vague sermon about a subsequent lifelong quest for fairness to workers.

The facts of his life are somewhat different. Guinn once bragged about keeping unions out of Southwest Gas when he headed the regional utility. Last week, he admitted to reporters that he took campaign money from the despised Elardi family, proprietors of the Frontier Hotel-Casino, site of the longest running strike in the country. In an earlier speech, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), bashed the Frontier for its worker cruelties, including putting excrement into food.

I felt personally insulted by Guinn because I, too, am the son of Fresno farm workers. But my family did more than walk away dejectedly when the boss tried to rip them off. My mom joined a union and later went on strike.

Guinn spoke of putting together study committees to promote labor-management harmony if elected governor. That's the equivalent of letting the Trojan horse through the gates. Management is not labor's good buddy. While usually not enemies, they are always adversaries. That healthy tension is good for democracy, as former Reagan-Ford-Nixon cabinet member George Shultz has said. (See the Reno Gazette-Journal labor day guest editorial by Richard "Skip" Daly of Laborers' Union Local 169 at

"Not just rhetoric—results," Guinn chirped, an empty slogan most probably penned by my old friend Sig Rogich, campaign adman for Reagan and Bush. Guinn even stole a line from Clinton campaign manager James Carville: "You have two things to give, your love and your labor," Guinn said, a direct lift without attribution from Carville's 1993 speeches.

But Guinn never used the word union. Not once. The audience noticed. Labor listened to the vapid Guinn because the only announced Democrat in the race has proven a disappointment.

MAMA BEAR: Atty. Gen. Frankie Sue Del Papa has thus far failed at putting a kinder, gentler face on a public career which has devolved into a permanent adversary relationship with her constituents. Del Papa, who set her sights on the governorship at about age six in Tonopah, has failed to prosecute blatant violations of labor law, according to many union representatives. Rather than make amends, she has simply dared her longtime supporters to find someone else to vote for. Which brings me to Dr. Lonnie Hammargren.

BABY BEAR: Lt. Gov. Lonnie crashed the party. Not invited to speak, he just showed up and got some microphone time anyway. He made pretty much the same promises as Guinn and Del Papa: vote for me and I'll set you free. But the Republican maverick may be the only place left for Nevada workers to go.

GOLDILOCKS: Blonde and buttoned-down GOP secretary of state Dean Heller was not even mentioned at the convention. That million-dollar Guinn war chest may have sent his prettiness to bed with no porridge for '98.

This flaky fairy tale leaves workers hungry for a dark horse to ride toward the governorship here in the state where workers have no rights under the law.

HEALTH AND JUSTICE BULLETIN: The Reno Hilton goes on trial at 1:00 p.m. Tuesday, September 23, for illegally firing its security guards. Ironically, it will take place at the National Center for Judicial Education, University of Nevada-Reno, Midby Byron Building, 1041 N. Virginia Street, Rooms 107 and 109. It is open to the public.

Should the trial continue to Friday, Sept. 26, it will move to the Washoe County District Health Department in Reno at 1001 E. 9th Street at Wells Ave., Building "B", North Auditorium. The Washoe County Health Dept. is a place well-known to Hilton Hotels Corp. In May of 1996, more than 1,000 people were sickened with bacterial infections at the hotel, necessitating an investigation by the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Only this column and KRNV TV-4 reported the CDC's real findings laying the blame on Reno Hilton Pres. Ferenç Szony's sickening sick leave policy. On May 1, 1996, Szony implemented a new, inflexible program. Workers were given a total of seven sick days for the entire year. Exceeding that number brought automatic termination. Most hotel workers could not afford to buy crystal balls to foretell exactly when or how long they'd be sick, so they started to report for work while quite ill.

The CDC said that workers who should have stayed home needed frequent trips to the restroom. All germs were not extinguished during those breaks. Guests and workers alike were thus infected via "fecal-oral contamination," another public relations coup for Reno and the world's largest gaming corporation.

The viciously anti-worker, anti-union Szony was fired awhile later. He remains a respected member of the community and recent rumors say he will soon become new CEO of the Reno Sands-Regency, where he'd fit right in. (See the Barbwires of August 3, 10 and 31.) Should all else fail, he might approach the Elardis for a food service management position at the LV Frontier. They apparently share the same management style.

Should the Reno Hilton trial carry over until Monday, September 29, it will continue at the University Inn's Sierra Room at 1001 N. Virginia Street.

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a Reno-based syndicated columnist and 29-year Nevadan, is editor of U-News.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 9/21/97.

Reprints of the UNR financial scandal newsbreaks remain available for the cost of copying at
Nevada Instant Type in Sparks and both Office Depot Reno locations.