A rock in the right place

He never called without a remarkable reason.

“I have a story you might be interested in,” he’d say.

And he’d deliver the newsworthy goods.

Tom “Stoney” Stoneburner, executive director of the Alliance for Workers Rights, might describe the plight of casual laborers being arrested on Galletti Way in Reno. Or workers burned in a factory explosion. Or workers who’d lost jobs and health benefits during the early closing of a downtown hotel resort.

A few weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, local casinos cut costs by cutting hours for some employees. Stoney’s phone rang off the hook. He called me and arranged an interview with a single mother of four who worked two part-time jobs and feared losing her apartment.

“This is a disaster,” he told me. “What’s happening is impacting the very bottom of the wage scale: service workers, maids, housemen, valet parkers, kitchen help. When their week is cut back, the impact is much more dramatic than it is for somebody who makes a living wage.”

Nothing provoked Stoney more.

“When we talk about a ‘reduction’ or a ‘cutback,’ those are sterile terms that leave out the human cost,” he said. “It’s kind of like using ‘collateral damage’ in the military sense, and what that really means is blowing up women and children. Here we talk about reduction in the work force, and what that really means is we’re going to take away the means to exist for men and women in our community.”

Stoney, 60, died of a heart attack on Feb. 21.

You know that “justice for all” bit from the Pledge of Allegiance?

Stoney believed it.

He organized strikes and pickets. Fought for work card reform. Trained laborers, many who didn’t speak English, to stand up for their rights.

Gathered at Monday’s memorial service for Stoney were Latinos, African Americans, whites, Native Americans, union activists, human-rights advocates, gang interven- tionists and environmentalists. We’d all been affected by Stoney, a former U.S. Marine who paid the bills as a Circus Circus security guard while lobbying tirelessly for the rights of Nevada workers.

A sign near the front of the First United Methodist Church set the tone: “No contract, no peace.” Smooth rocks adorning the church for Lent doubled as a metaphor for the man who once picketed in front of an approaching Mack truck.

Not many flowers. Instead, friends were encouraged to support the AWR by sending checks to 1 Booth St., Reno, 89509.

A eulogy was delivered by Bob Fulkerson of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, who described Stoney’s intuitive leadership abilities.

“He drew from workers their own ideas about justice … and about what this world would look like if we tapped into the best power of ourselves,” Fulkerson said.

Lee Dazey and Kim Elise of Reno played an acoustic-guitar version of Johnny Cash’s “The Man in Black,” the theme song for Stoney’s AWR show on Channel 16.

“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, livin’ in the hopeless hungry side of town,” they sang.

Kathy Stoneburner promised the work of AWR would continue.

Days after her husband’s unexpected death, Kathy met with construction workers whose plight had become Stoney’s most recent crusade. The men, hired to work on a Reno condo complex, hadn’t received a paycheck in six weeks, forcing several to seek emergency shelter through the Salvation Army.

Kathy said the AWR wouldn’t let them down.

The couple often invested their own money in supplies for ongoing battles. As they’d purchase picket signs, Kathy would think: “Maybe I’ll get curtains next year.”

Kathy, facing those gathered Monday, said the sacrifice was worth it. At her words, we rose to our feet in memory of Stoney, the activist who made Reno a better place to work.