Slavery, sweatshops and shell game education

This is an edition of the University Scandals 96-97 series, selected installments of which were submitted for Pulitzer Prize consideration. Click here to access the archive.

Slavery is back bigtime. You and I subsidize it every day and the only long term counterweight stands under siege. You are already familiar with the standard servitude stories, from the flesh markets of the mid-east to the guy in L.A. recently busted for imprisoning an imported boy and girl to exploit their sexuality and their labor. International human rights advocates recently denounced one Clinton-Gore remedy as a "kinder, gentler sweatshop." Among the corporate dragons signing on was Phil Knight, boss of Nike. Alas and alack, the employer of Tiger Woods also hires slave laborers to make his shoes for pennies an hour. You've probably known that for a long time. Does your kid still buy Air Jordans?

You can find involuntary servitude right here in River City. It's the reason Reno Air flight attendants voted 280 to 11 for Teamsters Union representation. The 96 percent margin was five points better than George Bush's propaganda peak Gulf War approval rating. If any margin of victory past 60 percent is considered a landslide, what message have Reno Air workers sent?

I submit they were protesting slave labor in the nation with the most repressive worker laws in the industrialized world. Should it not be illegal to force employees to work off the books for zero dollars per hour? Apparently not here. Pre-flight setup and post-flight cleanup are required freebies at Reno Air. Workers get paid only for their time aloft, required to fly the friendly skies unfed, all for the privilege of making about a thousand bucks a month - forcing many onto welfare and foodstamps.

Albertson's grocery stores were recently hit with a 17-state class action suit alleging that employees were forced to work off the clock. I recently got my circuits fried at the Reno branch of a major chain electronics store. I needed an extra battery to shoot video of a union march. The workers were protesting the Reno Hilton's successful attempt to cut its property taxes after firing its security guards.

I was wearing my union pin and within five minutes, I was talking union organizing with four sales reps. They are required to perform janitorial services off the clock before the place opens, they told me. They are further forced to do unpaid cleaning and stocking after closing. That's involuntary servitude. Ironically, one of them was quitting - to go to work for Reno Air. Got a hunch that person was not one of the 11 negative votes.

The right to vote is the most important right guaranteed by our Constitution, at least according to citizenship tests administered to immigrants. Perhaps, but that's not what made this a great and strong nation.

You may argue that from the start we possessed all the resources we needed to succeed. We had plenty of people fleeing old world oppression and lots of rich land which we stole from the previous inhabitants. That's true as far as it goes.

As a wise man once said, "democracy without education becomes tyranny without moderation." The American colonists were already well-educated when they rebelled against the king, predisposing the success of their subsequent self government.

Broad based education was the extra ingredient we added to maximize the return on our human and natural resources. Public education, the foundation of democracy, today stands on shakier and shakier ground. Because local school bonds failed last year, parents in richer, whiter areas are gulping that their kids must attend classes with (gasp) darker people and lowlifes from the working class areas. Two pricey private schools are under construction. One in the south Reno rich ranchero district will charge $7,500 per year per student.

Resources are not allocated equally in our school district. The schools with more active parents (translation: those with better socio-economic status) get more money. Parents lobby for it, raise it or donate it. Schools depending on the taxpayers alone fall apart, apartheid under arithmetical equality.

Public education presents the only chance most children of humble means will get to improve their lot in life. I could never have afforded to attend college had not the California state university system been so affordable and accessible. I graduated from Fresno State before Gov. Ronald Reagan could finish doing his dirty work of turning the greatest university system the world had ever seen into something only so-so. That's why I find it so ironic that two guys from Fresno State figure so prominently in the future of public higher education here in the high desert outback of the American dream.

UNR President Joe Crowley, former president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, is the most powerful man in Nevada education. If money buys elections, Las Vegan Kenny Guinn, who has never been elected to anything, is going to be Nevada's next governor. He's a former Clark County school superintendent, bank president, Southwest Gas CEO and was twice interim president of UNLV. The gambling industrial complex loves him and he's cute on TV.

Public education could not be in more jeopardy with these guys running the state. Guinn has been pushing university regents and the legislature for $100 million to expand UNLV sports facilities for the greater promotion of Gomorrah South gambling. His stalking horses are the National Finals Rodeo, which uses Thomas & Mack Center only two weeks a year, and the Las Vegas Bowl, which uses Sam Boyd Stadium for one week. Guinn and his cronies don't say they want to stick the students with the tab, but regents are currently reviewing huge fee increase proposals. The jockocracy will not admit to coveting bigtime pro sports for the town Bugsy built, but UNLV remains their best bet to get free facilities now that a privately financed downtown complex is apparently dead.

Long before Oakland was conned by Al Davis, Nevada was littered with money losing, publicly subsidized sports palaces. Taxpayers and students have paid a pretty penny for bowling and basketballs. As I reported last year, the Lawlor Events Center basketball floor and backboards were improperly paid for with federal defense dollars supposedly earmarked for education. Nice to know that UNR roundball helped win the Cold War.

The best place to look for monetary mismanagement at Crowley's store is at the Mackay School of Mines, the biggest cash cow on campus. Combined with a compliant UNR foundation to launder transactions away from public view, you have a volatile recipe for abuse. The Lawlor basketball floor came from Mackay moneys. Three trees somewhere on campus are on the books for about $20,000 each. The money was shunted to another jockocracy memorial.

It's all starting to catch up to the Crowley regime. As I reported last week, the U.S. Dept. of Defense inspector general has been looking into Mackay construction, a program consistently out of compliance with federal money rules. Last August, a fraudulent bid was awarded for construction of a mining library. The $1.5 million was suddenly not there to pay the contractor.

Last November, when the feds announced they were going to pay a visit to see how their new strategic materials center was doing, the Crowley regime panicked--largely because no such place existed. Signs for offices and labs were fabricated in less than three hours, apparently enough to pass preliminary inspection, but not for the Big I.G. from D.O.D. I'll continue to trace where the money went while the streetcorner shell game continues.

After I informed her of the sign show for the feds, university regent Nancy Price paid a surprise visit to UNR last week. She took photos of the still-empty offices with the phony signs still stuck to the doors.

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a Reno-based syndicated columnist and 28-year Nevadan.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988. This column originally published 4/27/97.

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