Labor pains

A carpenters union is championing better treatment for non-union members

The Sundowner Hotel Casino, built in 1975, often had business difficulties.

The Sundowner Hotel Casino, built in 1975, often had business difficulties.

Photo By David Robert

Carpenters Local 971 protested unfair labor practices last week, saying that contractors working for Belvedere LLC are not paying their workers prevailing wages and health care benefits.

Belvedere is converting a downtown building, formerly the Sundowner casino, into luxury condos. According to Local 971, some of the employees’ wages are lower than the standard for the Reno area.

“Just down the block at Palladio condos, they are paying the workers full wages and benefits,” said Linda Pierce, with Local 971.

A pamphlet handed out by the union says, “Shame on Belevedere for desecration of the American way of Life” and depicts a rat gnawing on an American flag. A rat is union-speak for a contractor that shorts its employees on wages and benefits.

Pierce, who was waving an American flag and tending a large “Shame on Belvedere LLC” banner, said the union had four similar banners in the Reno area and three in Carson City.

She said the banners are a form of “passive harassment” and are not encouraging a strike or picket line. The pamphlet also has a small disclaimer at the bottom saying, “We are not urging any worker to refuse to work.”

Local 971 has used the banners at other area job sites. In 2005, it had a “shame on Tanamara” banner referring to the South Reno apartment complex. Another one was in Carson City against Metcalf builders. The common tie is Gore Acoustics, a sub-contractor that has worked on all protested sites. The dispute between Gore and the Local 971 goes back to 2004, when Gore didn’t sign a contract with the union.

Standing-in for her husband, 30-year carpenters union member Randall Richardson, Linda Pierce holds a “Shame on Belvedere” banner. Union member Rainee Corder holds the other end.

Photo By David Robert

The union has twice been hauled before the National Labor Relations Board over the issue, and the board has ruled that the union’s banner campaign is not in violation of labor regulations. Union representative Steve Machiko said the banners are a way to let the public know what is going on.

“We are just exercising our right to free speech under the First Amendment,” Machiko said. “The public has a right to be informed. The banners are not a protest; they are only informational.”

None of the people working the banners are working the project. Columnist and worker activist Andrew Barbano says that in a transient society, workers must support each other, union affiliation or not: “Workers move from job to job. Making an impact in support of workers in one place may translate to support in another. It may be as simple as sending a message to other downtown condo developers that they will have to deal with the union.”

He added, “For a host of good examples of what can happen when a labor organization helps non-union workers, see what the late union president and community organizer Tom Stoneburner was able to accomplish in support of non-union workers—and without a strike or a picket line.” Stoneburner was director of the Alliance for Workers Rights, formed after workers were killed in a TNT plant explosion.

Constructed by Cal Neva Development Co. in 1975 on the site of the old Reno High School and Central Junior High School and financed by Prudential Insurance, the Sundowner was the largest hotel in Reno until the 1978 construction of the MGM Grand. But it was out of the flow of tourist traffic and always seemed troubled. Its conversion to condos is a hopeful sign to city officials, who have often said that one of the keys to revitalizing the city core is getting people to move back downtown to reside. It is one of several downtown properties being converted to condos.

In related news, the anti-union Center for Union Facts in Washington, D.C., has launched a $1 million newspaper and television campaign to attack unions during the autumn political campaign, and Nevada is one of four states where the group is investing its money.

In Montana, where the campaign has already started, the Helena Independent Record reported, “One TV ad … suggests that public employees are lazy clock-watchers who waste away the day chatting to each other about their generous vacation and sick-time benefits, while a frustrated line of people waits to license vehicles.”

SourceWatch, a Wisconsin group that tracks the background and support of political groups, says that the Center for Union Facts is a “secretive front group for individuals and industries opposed to union activities. It is part of lobbyist Rick Berman’s family of front groups including the Employment Policies Institute.”

Berman is a tobacco lobbyist and public relations man who creates organizations with positive-sounding names like “Center for Consumer Freedom” to promote his clients’ agendas. He once put up a Web site,, to promote the mercury-is-our-friend views espoused by, among others, U.S. Rep. James Gibbons of Nevada (“Eat your mercury,” Jan. 26, 2006).

A spokesperson for Wal-Mart has told the Detroit Free Press that while it is not the source of funding for the Center for Union Facts, “it has a relationship in which it exchanges union information with Berman, the group’s head.