Update 3-8-2009: In Search of Geraldine McGee
From the "Looking to the 21st Century" special section in the 10-28-98 Daily Sparks, Nev., Tribune
matter the pedigree of your city, one piece of urban DNA is the same
everywhere. Your town may have a heart of gold, but its circulatory
system is cold steel.
Southern Pacific subsequently spawned Sparks, saving the area from one day becoming eastern Reno.
When SP took over the Central Pacific route, the company wanted a shortcut and moved operations from Wadsworth to the swamp land which had scared CP away 30 years before. Track was laid along basically the same line surveyed before the flood.
Sparks was born in 1903 when SP held a lottery for its Wadsworth employees giving them homesites north of the new railbed. The only stipulation was that the lots could never be used for business purposes. Somehow, the Nugget casino and Victorian Square evolved anyway.
The story of Sparks can be viewed as the story of the American century. She grew like a mushroom after a gullywashing cloudburst. Perhaps her past holds clues to our future, but you have to learn the code of the rails.
The tracks will tell a story of yesterday, today and tomorrow for those willing to lay down an ear and listen to the rhythm of the dull, distant rumble.
Bill McGee did so his whole life. His father taught him to learn from the trains.
The iron octopus changed his life in 1922, when he was all of five years old.
His father, William E. McGee I, was then a young railroad worker for the Great Northern in the state of Washington.
"During World War I, the U.S. Railroad Administration had operated the interstate railroads and negotiated wages and working conditions on behalf of employees of various lines," wrote Nevada historians Phillip I. Earl and Guy Louis Rocha in 1986.
After the armistice, "railroad officials claimed that wages had risen too high during the war, although a 20 percent raise granted by the Railroad Labor Board in July, 1920, barely brought wages abreast of the cost of living," Earl and Rocha noted.
"When Warren G. Harding assumed the presidency in 1921, he substantially altered the composition of the Labor Board by appointing men more favorable to management. In April, 1921, a month after Harding came into office, the Labor Board abrogated wartime agreements...(and) followed up in July with a 12 percent wage reduction," wrote Earl and Rocha.
The great strike of 1922 came one year later.
HITTING HOME. "Many railroad families had put money aside, and Sparks landlords offered to defer rent payments if necessary," Earl and Rocha related from the pages of the Sparks Tribune.
"Physicians and merchants also offered extension of credit, and political leaders supported the unionists," they wrote.
The strike impacted every corner of Nevada, even the whistlestop on the parched plane to south called Las Vegas.
Up in Washington, the McGee family went through hard times with harder times to come. Railroad officials announced that workers who did not return would lose their jobs. Very few went back.
In Sparks, Southern Pacific tried to do the work of 700 with just 31 people.
Back then, it was common practice for companies to seek judicial injunctions as a way to break worker solidarity. The railroads did so and forced an early end to the strike by late September.
"My dad lost his job and seniority,"
Bill McGee remembers. Worse, he was blackballed from future work.|
"Even in that day, federal law forbade blackballing a worker," McGee remembers.
"Working men, then as now, were entitled to a letter of referral to present to other prospective employers," McGee says.
"The referral card had a picture of a wrecking crane on the letterhead. The trick was that the strikers card had the crane picture with a bent boom and the non-strikers crane had a straight boom. That way, the railroads wouldn't hire the men with the crooked neck crane," McGee wrote in a memoir.
"They were caught in that move and (workers) had their records cleared by government order. After that, my father and the other union men were able to hire out again," McGee states.
Some Nevadans were able to return to their jobs at the cut back rates of pay which had caused the strike in the first place. The fortunate ones lost no pension rights or seniority.
Others returned at reduced wages with seniority and pensions lost.
"Railroad operations were back to normal by Christmas, 1922," Earl and Rocha wrote.
"The Railroad Strike of 1922 demonstrated the uselessness of the Railroad Labor Board in settling labor-management disputes; the failure of union leaders to achieve their aims led to a crisis of confidence for them; and the decline in Nevada railroad union membership paralleled that of unions in the state's mining industry," the historians commented.
"Organized labor in Nevada benefited from this legislation. Craft unions...made a comeback in the southern part of the state, and construction of Hoover Dam early in the 1930's and growth at Las Vegas accelerated labor's recovery...locals in Reno were also revitalized, but unions never regained the power and political influence they enjoyed in Nevada prior to World War I and the Railroad Strike of 1922," Earl and Rocha concluded.
INSTANT REPLAY. In 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike caused a replay of 1922. As with Warren Harding, the election of Ronald Reagan ushered in an era of unfettered, heyday capitalism. The rich got much richer at the expense of everyone else.
PATCO had endorsed Reagan, feeling it could get a better deal from him than Jimmy Carter. Reagan fired all 13,000 of them within three months of his coming into office, sending a signal to employers nationwide that it was open season on pesky unions.
As Harding appointed company-friendly people to the Railroad Labor Board, Reagan did the same with the National Labor Relations Board and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. By the middle of the Reagan years, union and civil rights leaders were calling for abolition of the perverted forms of these once-hallowed bodies.
The anti-government and anti-tax speeches of Ronald Reagan were basically rewrites of the diatribes of Harding's treasury secretary, Andrew W. Mellon, who felt the rich should not pay taxes. His descendant, Richard Mellon Scaife, is the principal funding source for Kenneth Starr and the extreme right's campaign to remove President Clinton.
JOB. If you would understand your community, test its railroad ties.
The recently merged Southern Pacific and Union Pacific are implementing
a plan to triple the number of trains through Sparks and Reno, running
them at double their usual speeds. They will increasingly carry nuclear
and other hazardous wastes through the hearts of both downtowns.
If the badly needed school bonds fail next Tuesday, the railroad will have played a pivotal role in damaging support for education at a time when improvement is critically needed.
Our principal industry pays the lowest gambling taxes in the U.S. and is likely to remain that way. As Sparks was once a railroad company town, Nevada is now a gambling company town.
Like the railroads which hurt Bill McGee's family, casinos today blackball disfavored employees in the normal course of business. It's still illegal, but it happens all the time.
It took the ascension of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression to win comprehensive rights for American workers. Today, U.S. labor laws rate as the weakest among western industrialized nations. The country's standard of living has eroded along with people's paychecks.
DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN. The parallels between the 1920s and 1980s are almost complete, save for the catastrophic economic disruption which, for two centuries, has always followed decades of capitalistic excess. Perhaps the recent collapse of Asian economies underscores the lesson we have apparently forgotten from the Great Railroad Strike of 1922.
He who does not remember history is condemned to repeat it, as we did, beginning in 1981.
If you would understand your community, test its railroad ties. The steel bloodstream tells no lies.
Andrew Barbano is a Nevada newcomer, having lived in the Silver State just three decades. He is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of U-News. His first contribution to the Sparks Tribune came in 1973. He has written an opinion column for the paper since it became a daily in 1988.
Search of Geraldine McGee
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Andrew Barbano is a 40-year Nevadan, editor of NevadaLabor.com and JoeNeal.org, former chair of the City of Reno's Citizens Cable Compliance Committee and serves as second vice-president, political action chair and webmaster of the Reno-Sparks NAACP. As always, his opinions are strictly his own. E-mail email@example.com.
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