Power and Privilege

A Fight from the Beginning: Nevada's Right to Work Law

by Larry Litchfield

his is a call to arms. If ever we needed a Nevada Citizen’s Committee to protect our state’s right-to-work law, it’s now."

It was one of Senator Ann O’Connell’s finest moments during her first appearance behind the Associated Builders and Contractors of Southern Nevada (ABC) podium last fall.

In her speech, she set the stage with a brief primer on Nevada’s right-to-work law which was adopted as Senate Bill 79 and signed into law by then Governor Charles Russell on March 14, 1951. The bill made it onto the books despite the unions’ "ranting" and calling the law "yellow dog" and "slave labor" legislation.

"The birth of Nevada’s Right-to-Work Law ran true to form with our state’s motto ‘Battle Born,’" said O’Connell.

The Reno Rodeo on July 4, 1949 "was a turning point in the history of Nevada, the end result being the right-to-work law," said O’Connell.

The Culinary Union had been unsuccessfully trying to force its expansion to include the hotel’s service employees, according to O’Connell, and decided to call a lockout over this Independence Day holiday, "knowing full well that damaging effect it would have on the state’s economy."

At that time in Nevada’s history, "the unions enjoyed virtually closed shop conditions" and their leaders "believed they were strong enough to issue a new challenge to management." And, added O’Connell, what better timing than on one of the busiest (tourist) holidays of the year.

The strike occurred and so outraged the business community that the Nevada Citizen’s Committee was formed. This committee proceeded to gather signatures for an initiative petition drive which, in effect, caused the introduction of a bill in the 1951 Legislatures that amended a 1911 law which prohibited closed shop organization.

The new proposal prohibited organizational picketing and secondary boycotts, required a 30-day cooling off period after a strike vote, barred strikes without a 51 percent vote by the bargaining unit and required unions to file financial statements with the Labor Commissioner.

SB 79 became "a combat zone," according to O’Connell. "Considering the fight and resources that labor had invested in trying to defeat SB 79, it was a major loss that (the unions) are still trying to recover from some 46 years later.

"I’m happy to report that the voters again passed the right-to-work ballot question—by some 1,000 votes—and in November 1962 Nevada’s right-to-work became a reality.
"The unions didn’t take this sitting down. They fought back all the way to the Supreme Court and lost. The law went into effect in 1953."

During the 1950s, the unions tried on four different occasions to raise enough signatures on petitions to overturn the law. On three of those tries they successfully got their position on the ballot, but each time voters rejected it.

Eight more union attempts to repeal the law were unsuccessful during the 1960s and 1970s. And in the early 1990s, the unions tried three more times and met with three failures.

"Now in 1996 and 1997, the unions have dedicated some $35 million to be spent here in Nevada to unionize our state," says O’Connell.

O’Connell chided Governor Bob Miller for helping the unions by issuing his 1994 Executive Order that opened the door for the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s adoption of its union-only Project Labor Agreement.

She warned that the unions have become very sophisticated in their approach to getting what they want.

"The unions aren’t missing a trick. Our challenge is to beat them at their own game...by taking their claims and turning them around.

"It’s absurd to say the safety of Nevada’s workers depends on your being a member of a union. All Nevada employers must carry workers’ comp in order to have a business license. So, all employers, non-union as well as union, are operating under the same safety laws.

"The unions always have testified that they have the most qualified workforce, resulting in the safest work place and (thus) turn out the best product.

"If that’s true, why do they need the protection of collective bargaining plus government-guaranteed money through prevailing wage as well as government-guaranteed jobs under project labor agreements?" u

Larry Litchfield is the executive director of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc., Southern Nevada Chapter.


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