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Casino Labor Debate Heats Up

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A group calling itself the Commission on Workplace Fairness staged a hearing in a hotel near the California capitol ostensibly to urge Governor Schwarzenegger to include tougher labor language in a renegotiated gaming compact with the tribe.

However, critics are claiming that the hearing was little more than a ruse to force a powerful union access to and influence over the Agua Caliente tribe, one of the most profitable gaming tribes in the nation.

The commission was formed primarily at the behest of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE). Among the commission members were Senator Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and a representative for Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood.

HERE has been a major contributor to primarily Democratic legislators.

Included among the participants were former Agua Caliente employees who are claiming they have been the victims of harassment by casino management. The complaints ranged from age discrimination to discrimination based on sexual orientation to discrimination based on health conditions of the employees.

Though none of the employees in question have been fired, Rosalind Sagara, the Communications coordinator for HERE said employees have lost "points," apparently a workplace performance gauge, because of medical and family health care needs.

While Agua Caliente Chairman Richard Milanovich and other tribal officials were unavailable for comment, the tribe has denied earlier allegations by HERE. Previously targeted by HERE was Agua Caliente's actions on employee health care. They claimed the tribe was forcing its employees toward government funded health insurance rather than paying for it themselves.

Sondra Goeppner, who used to work as a cocktail waitress for Agua Caliente claims she was discriminated against on the basis of age. She alleges that when she first took the job her manager told her that the only opening was the night shift. However, after a while she said that it became apparent that there were openings for the day shift that she said were going to younger workers.

Goeppner also claims that management did not condemn widespread discrimination that included sexual harassment and anti-homosexual sentiments by other employees.

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Goeppner maintains that employees had no recourse for this kind of behavior and claims that union representation is also needed to provide low cost health insurance and other benefits.

"I just think that union representation is needed to provide a harassment-free workplace where employees get basic benefits," Goeppner said.

Workplace incidents aside, HERE has waged an aggressive campaign to represent the tribes. After opposing Proposition 5 in 1998, which was the first of two bills to legalize Indian gaming in California, HERE was also instrumental in its subsequent overturn. Currently, HERE represents most Las Vegas casino workers and Goeppner said the reason she supports HERE is because they have a "proven track record" with casino employees.

The question then is if HERE would support another union who would support the same goals. HERE communications director Rosalind did not address this question directly. In fact, critics of the union said that this is precisely the problem.

One source familiar with the issue said that HERE arranged a deal with AFL-CIO in which they would have two years exclusivity in trying to woo tribal employees into their camp. They met with limited success as a few tribes such as Cache Creek, whose attorney Howard Dickstein arranged a deal with the tribe to let HERE represent their employees.

The problem is that 30 percent of employees of any given workplace must agree to let a union represent them and HERE has not gained that number at Agua Caliente. For example, HERE has also unsuccessfully tried to unionize the Hyatt hotel in downtown Sacramento because they could not get 30 percent of the employees to vote in their favor.

Susan Jensen, communications director for the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA), the largest Indian gaming lobby group of which Agua Caliente is a member said HERE is being misleading when they claim that unions are shut out of tribes. Jensen said that the 1998 tribal/state compacts clearly spell out the procedures for tribal employees to access a union and procedures for guaranteeing its effectiveness.

"Tribes do have access to unions if their employees want it," Jensen said.

Jensen cited out that there are also other options for unionizing tribal employees and pointed the Viejas tribe's deal with the Communications Workers of America, or CWA.

Additionally, Jensen pointed out that a member tribe of CNIGA, the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, is represented by HERE.