Labor victory in California casino vote

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gambling interests could not muster enough State Assembly votes to ram through confirmation of a new Native American gambling casino agreement at the end of the 2006 California legislative session. The legislation would have set back casino workers’ rights while radically increasing the number of slot machines in the state.

Unite Here, the union that represents casino workers, along with the California Federation of Labor and some Native American tribes, influenced enough Assembly members to vote “No” or “Abstain” on the proposed agreement to stop it from getting a majority.

Gaming compacts are negotiated between the state government and individual Indian tribes, which are sovereign nations that are not subject to federal or California labor laws. The proposed new casino would have been the third for one of the state’s wealthiest gaming tribes, the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians. The workers in California’s $9 billion gaming industry are predominantly women and people of color.

Recently ratified American Indian-owned casino agreements provide for union representation when half or more of the employees sign union cards. However, under provisions of the defeated agreement, in order to have union representation, casino employees would have had to go through a drawn out election process rather than having access to the fairer card-check.

In hearings before Government Operations Committee, several Agua Caliente casino employees told of getting asthma from cigarette smoke in the casino and not being able to afford health insurance. They pointed to grievances ignored by the casino’s internal arbitration committee and letters from casino management to employees asking them to call police if union organizers knocked on their doors.

“If you speak up about anything, Agua Caliente managers will make your life a hell,” claimed one woman.

Meanwhile, the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeño Indians spent the last two weeks of August on a “Fast for Justice” on the lawn of the State Capitol building here. They urged passage of a compact to allow them to open a casino in the Southern California town of Barstow in partnership with the Big Lagoon Rancheria, another poor tribe in Northern California’s Humboldt County.

The Los Coyotes, based in the mountains outside San Diego, are one of the poorest tribes in California. Only part of the reservation has running water or a working sewer system, and electricity was only brought to its edge in 1998.

“Our land is not commercially fit for business, and the Big Lagoon land on the California coast is environmentally sensitive and habitat-reserved,” the fasters told the PWW.

Barstow, an impoverished city in the Mojave Desert, is not part of either tribes’ land, but the casino would bring jobs there, they added. Their gaming compact was signed by the governor almost a year ago, but has yet to be ratified by the Assembly.

The compact provides for union representation for the casino and hotel workers, and would pay the state 25 percent of the casino’s profits. Tribes that already operate casinos opposed the Los Coyotes compact.

The fasters seek to “bring attention to the disparity between the haves and the have-nots,” said Melody Sees, who is environmental director of the Los Coyotes Band. “We want justice for our people and for all the other non-gaming tribes.”