Sixty years later, right-to-work lives on in Nevada as labor thrives

On the same day that thousands protested the end of labor as we know it in Michigan, the largest, thriving union in a right-to-work state celebrated the ascendancy of its first female and Hispanic leader.

As Michigan is poised to become the country’s 24th right-to-work state (unions can't force new employees to pay dues), it’s worth remembering just how potent labor is here in Nevada, despite the 60-year-old law on the books here. With an invaluable assist from ex-state Archivist Guy Rocha, I wondered just how a state that became right to work by a narrow margin in 1952 could be the same one where labor is celebrating unprecedented political influence in 2012 and its largest member today announced the election of Nicaraguan refugee and former housekeeper Geoconda Arguello-Kline as its new leader.

What seems incongruous is easily explained, along with some fascinating history that shows right-to-work seeds were planted in Reno in the middle of the last millennium and while taking root in northern Nevada, the anti-labor sentiment never flowered in the South because of accommodationist employers who have run joints along what in 1952 was a dusty boulevard with only Bugsy Siegel’s place of note.

The history here is fascinating, as Rocha, a Culinary member himself from way back, showed me.

The right-to-work law came out of labor unrest in the late 1940s and 1950s, including a Reno Culinary and Bartenders strike in July 1949 and then a printers’ union lockout at – wait for it – the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Labor Day. In April of the following year, the International Typographers Union Local 33 struck the RJ and began publishing an opposition paper, the Free Press. Less then two months later, it was sold to – wait again – Hank Greenspun, who changed the name to….the Las Vegas Sun.

But it was business leaders in the North, aided by some doyens in the South, who used the Reno Culinary strike as ammunition to start momentum for a real right-to-work law, Rocha told me.

Ultimately, SB79 was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Charlie Russell on March 14, 1951. It had to be ratified by the voters and was, barely, the following year, 38,823-37,789 (50.6 percent to 49.4 percent).

Labor tried to get the law repealed twice at the ballot –- 1954 and 1956 -– failing both times. And then in 1958 – see if this doesn’t sound familiar – an initiative petition to repeal the right-to-work law was ordered off the ballot for insufficient signatures.

There were other legislative attempts to undermine the law – here and in Congress. But they went nowhere. Indeed, as Rocha pointed out, Nevada’s own Paul Laxalt introduced a national right to work bill in the U.S. Senate in 1977.

And yet, the 1952 law has not destroyed labor in Nevada – far from it. Indeed, although membership is not overwhelming, just as it isn’t anywhere, labor’s political might may have reached its apex in 2012.

Northern Nevada may never have been the same. But since the Hoover Dam era, when unions organized during the construction, the labor movement in the South has been powerful. The mob didn’t hurt, either, as Rocha told me.

“There was a general understanding there was going to be labor peace,” the ex-archivist said. “The attitude was to work together with the casino industry, and many of larger houses were mobbed up.”

Ah, remember the organized crime-union nexus that helped build Las Vegas. Since that time, corporations in the early ‘80s have not wanted to rock the union boats, especially after the crippling 1984 strike.

There also was the unusual symbiosis between the gamers and the unions in national politics. The Culinary helped with key congressional leaders such as Dan Rostenkowski and Dick Gephardt when anti-casino measures were floated. What hurt the industry, the argument went,  would hurt the Culinary, which at its height had 60,000-plus members.

As D. Taylor put it during each one of his recent exit interviews before making way for Arguello-Kline, this one with the RJ's Howard Stutz: “I found that in dealing with the gaming industry, we have a lot more in common than we have differences.”

Labor, of course, has had its setbacks here. The acrimony between local governments and the fire and police unions over generous contracts as the recession hit its peak. State workers do not have the right to collectively bargain. And the teachers union, while still a force, is not nearly the political juggernaut it once was.

But unlike in Michigan, where labor may be going in reverse, the Culinary, through Arguello-Kline’s elevation, is moving forward. She is the first Latina ever to lead the union, which only cemented its political power by helping Harry Reid in 2010 and President Obama and down-ballot folks, too, this year. That Hispanic might here, which is key to politics in Nevada: A lot of those Latinos are Culinary members, and now one is the leader.

Right-to-work is all the rage across the Midwest. But here in a state marking its 60th anniversary of being a right-to-work state with the election of an unprecedented leader of a populous union, you almost never hear the phrase.