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Longtime local Teamsters boss had great influence in simpler times

There was a time when every move local Teamsters boss Dick Thomas made had an impact on thousands of Southern Nevada workers. He had clout at many levels.

It’s also true there was a time when almost every move he made was watched by federal law enforcement.

Thomas, a former cabdriver who went on to become a Las Vegas union boss, died Feb. 21. He was 89. His passing went almost entirely unnoticed in the press.

Born in Whittier, Calif., Thomas moved as a teenager with his family to Las Vegas. He graduated from Las Vegas High in 1945.

Thomas had an influence on many lives, whether they were rank-and-file Teamsters members or nonunion workers whose fortunes rose on the strength of organized labor’s contract negotiations.

Back when the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund underwrote much of the financing for casino construction on the Strip, Thomas led his local union through tumultuous and even dangerous years. He was known in boardrooms and backrooms. His many connections, which stretched from the state capital to the Teamsters’ smoke-filled inner circle, at times made him notorious.

But, as his old friends would say, that was the street he walked with his head held high.

In an interview with James P. Kraft for the book, “Vegas at Odds: Labor Conflict in a Leisure Economy, 1960-1985,” Thomas reflected on his early years with the Teamsters here with a sense of nostalgia for simpler times.

“When I first got into the hotel business, our contract was six pages … with maybe five or six articles,” Thomas said. “There were only a handful of people to do business with in those days, and you knew them all. … There was nothing you couldn’t figure out a way to solve. … They didn’t have an argument with the union being there.”

The names of Thomas and Bob Fox were mentioned in a now-legendary letter written by mob legal titan Sidney Korshak to Barron Hilton after the hotel king’s perceived disloyalty during a licensing struggle in New Jersey.

As recounted in Gus Russo’s blockbuster “Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America’s Hidden Powerbrokers,” and elsewhere, Korshak wrote, “Do you remember calling me in Las Vegas at 6 one morning while you were with Kirk Kerkorian and Frank Rothman for me to ask the unions not to strike you, namely Dick Thomas of the Teamsters and Bob Fox of the Engineers? As you well know, there was no fee involved.”

Thomas wasn’t afraid to order his members off the job, as he did in 1983 at six hotels. He also wasn’t above working the political system that existed in light and shadow.

Some considered Thomas a glorified hoodlum who maintained organized crime connections, but to many local Teamsters of a certain generation he was a larger-than-life player who kept people working through good times and bad.

From the Teamsters Local 986 Facebook post: “Dick spent most of his adult life fighting for working men and women, he is largely responsible for getting us the pension and benefits that we all enjoy today. … He was not one to talk about his accomplishments but we all owe a debt of gratitude to this fine man whether you had the pleasure of knowing him or not.”

Suzanne Baran added, “Let’s not forget those that came before us and fought the righteous fight.”

There are those, of course, who would counter that Thomas wasn’t always righteous. But he was always a proud, old-school Teamster. Like his recently deceased longtime friend Fox, Thomas was a survivor from a very tough era of Las Vegas history. Around these parts, you ought to give a survivor his due.

DUBIOUS DISTINCTION: For a city constantly trying to boost its image to the world, it’s almost always nice to be No. 1 in just about any category. Yeah, almost.

I’m not sure this news is going to make any “Visit Vegas” billboards: Las Vegas, according to multiple news reports, has the highest rate of syphillis in the West.

Take that, Reno.

Las Vegas is always looking to market itself, but I’d like to see how convention authority officials and the advertising wunderkinds at R&R Partners spin this “first.”

Several slogans jump immediately to mind, none of which are likely appropriate for the family newspaper.

But, “What happens here may take weeks of penicillin to cure” jumps immediately to mind.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Contact him at 702-383-0295 or jsmith@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

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