Nevada labor leader Tom Stoneburner died Monday of a heart attack at his Palamino Valley home. His death came just days after he took the lead in highlighting the plight of 24 construction workers who came to Reno with the promise of work and were left stranded when they worked for a month but were never paid by either the contractor or subcontractor.
“These guys come from all over the country; they’re experienced craftsmen proud of their trade,” Stoneburner said. “When a contractor treats them like this, it should be a case of robbery, just like if someone walked into a 7-Eleven and took money out of the drawer. They’re being robbed of their dignity, time and ability to bring food to their family.”
Those kinds of tough comments sometimes sounded incongruous from the short, sort-spoken Stoneburner. But his friends said while he was mild-mannered with people, workplace issues brought out the steel in him.
Employed as a security guard at the Circus Circus Casino until his death, he helped win union representation for the casino’s guards in a 1994 election—the first known union win for casino security workers in state history.
A year later, as president of the United Plant Guard Workers, he led Reno Hilton guards on strike when he felt the casino was not bargaining in good faith. The strike came just as Reno’s Hot August Nights week-long celebration was about to hit and led to union representation at the casino that is still in place.
In 1997, he formed the Alliance for Workers Rights. The Alliance first came to prominence by supporting the workers who survived a Sierra Chemical Company explosion on Jan. 7, 1998, that killed four workers at its TNT plant in eastern Washoe County. It also raised money, so the bodies could be shipped to their families.
Working outside a formal union structure, Stoneburner was able to delve into both traditional labor issues and problems facing working people outside the workplace.
Last year, for instance, he supported Ayudando a Superarse (“Working to Overcome”), a Latino parents group trying to settle grievances against the Washoe County School District.
“The alliance … immediately recognized that this was an issue we couldn’t ignore,” Stoneburner said. “If students aren’t getting a quality education—and particularly, a certain class of students—then what we’re doing is establishing and perpetuating an underclass of workers in our community who have no real expectation of ever being successful in the workplace or even in society.”
Stoneburner also took on the issue of female casino workers forced to wear high heels, an issue that some union leaders, and certainly the industry, had considered trivial. After it finally got some public attention with Stoneburner’s help, one Las Vegas casino executive said that in all his years with the industry, he’d never heard of the issue.
“The industry insists that these women are entertainers,” Stoneburner said. “But women are saying to us, ‘We’re in the service industry. We serve drinks, run Keno. We’re not in the business to sell sex.’”
One result was the introduction at the 2001 Nevada Legislature of Senate Bill 23, a measure forbidding discrimination against workers injured by an employer’s mandatory job requirements—like wearing high-heels for an 8- to 10-hour cocktail server shift.
“Who could possibly be against this?” Stoneburner said. “It just makes me furious.”
Stoneburner had equal disdain for taxing workers heavily, as in Nevada, and then using those taxes for corporate welfare. In 2003, in an RN&R essay he co-authored with Laura Mijanovich, he said, “If you want the city to foot part of the bill on your development, show us how you intend to reach out to veterans, minorities, women, those with disabilities and the economically disadvantaged. Don’t want to do that? Then, keep your hands out of the public cookie jar. This goes for those who want exemptions from hook-up charges, taxes, curb and gutter or sewer fees and whatever else they can dream up.”
When, in February 2003, Harrah’s Las Vegas Rio announced it was dumping 80 cocktail servers and replacing them with “bevertainers” who would be expected to sing and dance across the casino floor while serving drinks to casino customers, the servers contacted the Alliance. Stoneburner was livid.
“There’s a moral obligation on the part of an employer to treat fairly its long-term employees, and not to just arbitrarily change the whole job description in such a radical way,” Stoneburner told the Las Vegas Mercury (which pointed out that Harrah’s executive Jan Jones had during her days as a politician spoken out for women’s rights). “I think I’m starting to see a pattern here. I just can’t help but feel we have a management that is bent on exploiting women.”
Stoneburner’s accomplishments include changes in the way tip income is taxed, elimination of work-card requirements for some workers, projects set up to aid day laborers and women workers, numerous changes in state law after the Sierra Chemical explosion, Spanish translators included as part of official farm inspection tours, and a public-access television show to give visibility to workers’ issues.
Labor activist Andrew Barbano says Stoneburner’s last years should help point the way for a waning labor movement: “Nevada unions have much to learn from Stoneburner’s tactics of essentially bringing workers together … while bypassing the expensive, time-consuming, often perverted and usually unsuccessful election process. Stoneburner showed how community organizing, public pressure and media savvy could often be more effective than garden variety [labor organizing] techniques.”
Barbano and others of Stoneburner’s friends called on the Nevada Legislature, which is now meeting, to enact a measure he proposed. It would have amended state criminal statutes to provide for prosecution of corporate executives and managers for negligent homicide, manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter when workers are knowingly or negligently killed by workplace conditions.