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Coin: Tribal businesses pose a threat to hotel industry and union labor

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As the date neared for the June opening of the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, hotel and restaurant, operators surrounding the Madera County, Calif., tribal casino noticed their top employees were making for the exits.

The local International House of Pancakes lost a hostess and a cook. Three other IHOP cooks applied for jobs with the Chukchansi resort but didn't make the grade. The Pines Resort at nearby Bass Lake lost a manager, two food and beverage workers and a security officer. The Tenaya Lodge is losing 15 employees.

"They (the tribe) offer more money," IHOP manager Bobbie Riding told The Fresno Bee newspaper. "They offer benefits, insurance and vacation. You can't blame them," she said of departing employees.

The growth of the tribal government gaming industry is generating some healthy competition for the non-Indian restaurant and hospitality industries, both in California and throughout the country. The growth of tribal casinos also is aggravating an already testy relationship between California tribes and one of the nation's most powerful labor organization, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE).

Tribal government gaming is California's fastest growing industry in terms of job growth, according to state Employment Development Department figures released in June. Tribes employ 37,200 workers, according to EDD figures, an annual growth rate of 12 percent at a time when every other private and public sector employer in the state is losing jobs.

An annual University of Nevada, Las Vegas, survey shows that California tribes provide better wages and benefits than tribal gaming operations in other states. And wage and benefits data compiled by the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) show that tribal government wages and benefits are equal or better than those offered by the more upscale hotel corporations.

"The figures stack up very well for the tribes," says Rick Salinas, assistant general manager for the Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino near San Diego. "Employees will get as good a wage and benefits package with the tribal governments as they would get at a major, upscale hotel company. I'm looking at Marriott, Hyatt, Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton. I'm talking high end, respected chains that have a good product."

Labor unrest

The dispute between HERE and California tribes began in 1998, when HERE fought attempts by tribes to engage in gaming on Indian lands. HERE contested gaming referendums first at the ballot box and later in federal court. The fight against Proposition 5 was, in fact, led by HERE and bankrolled by Nevada casino companies, which employ 50,000 of HERE's 250,000 workers.

When tribal-state compacts were eventually agreed to in 1999, HERE again flexed its muscles. As a condition for state approval of compacts allowing tribes to operate slot machines and house-banked table games, union-backed Gov. Gray Davis required tribes to agree to a model Tribal Labor Relations Ordinance. The TLRO allows union representatives access to tribal lands and requires that a secret ballot election be conducted before employees can organize for the purpose of collective bargaining.

"The TLRO was a major concession on the part of California's tribal governments," says San Rafael attorney George Foreman.

But the labor concessions agreed to by California tribes apparently did not satisfy HERE. The international union has in the last 20 to 30 years failed in its attempts to organize workers through the democratic process of a secret ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. It has instead convinced Nevada casino operators opening new properties to permit organization of workers through a "card check" system.

"Other labor unions have been able to organize workers through a secret ballot election," Foreman says, including the Communication Workers of America (CWA), which represents employees for the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. "The card check system is a HERE thing."

Frustrated in its efforts to organize California workers, HERE has launched a political and public relations campaign aimed at portraying tribal governments as ruthless, exploitive employers in an effort to convince state legislators to amend compacts and the TLRO to allow the card check system for tribal operations.

"They couldn't come in through the front door so they're trying to come in through the back door," said Anthony Miranda, vice president of the development corporation for the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians.

A history of controversy

HERE has targeted much of its media campaign at the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The union has used unsubstantiated allegations and a university survey based on a small number of tribal workers in an effort to show that the tribal government is providing inadequate wages and benefits. The union also has inferred that all California tribes are abusing their legal status as sovereign governments to keep wages and benefits below industry standards.

But wages and benefits at the Agua Caliente casino and other tribal gaming operations in California are excellent. The issue between HERE and the tribes has nothing whatsoever to do with pay and benefits. It has absolutely nothing to do with working conditions at tribal government casinos.

The dispute has everything to do with adhering to the wording of the TLRO and the tribal-state compacts. Tribes are respecting the government-to-government relationship and the agreement reached with the state of California and organized labor. The union wants to break that agreement.

HERE also is displaying a lack of respect for the sovereign status of tribal governments. The union once indicated a willingness to enter into an alliance with tribal governments similar to that it has enjoyed with Nevada casino companies. But until HERE respect tribes as governments, and they do not, there cannot be that sort of alliance.

A dark history

HERE has a history of involvement with organized crime and less than three years ago was being supervised by a federal court appointed monitor. Corrupt union locals in New York City and Atlantic City, N.J., were placed under federal controls. The union's health and welfare plan has also been plagued by mismanagement.

Tribal government casinos are the most highly regulated segment of the legal gambling industry. Yet there are constant accusations from politicians and the press that there is a lack of sufficient regulation of gaming in Indian country. With this type of media scrutiny, it may not be wise for tribal gaming commissions responsible for investigating and licensing labor organizations to issue a finding of suitability for HERE.

"I can certainly imagine a licensing entity looking at the history of the organization and (deciding) ? all of those things taken together might be a basis for determination of unsuitability," Foreman says.

Tribal governments are not anti-union. Organized labor is used in much of the rapid economic development taking place on Indian lands. And the Communication Workers of America has been embraced by tribal governments in its representation of gaming and hotel employees.

Jacob L. Coin is executive director of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, an association of more than 50 Indian nations in the state. He is a member of the Hopi Indian Tribe, Tobacco Clan, from the Village of Kykotmovi in Arizona.