Tribal leaders of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association are stunned and appalled at the May 7 story by Joel Millman ("Burgeoning Indian Casinos Get Ahead in Part by Dodging Labor Regulations"). This hatchet job is so full of factual errors and bias that it shouldn't be called journalism at all, but "pulp fiction." We resent this attempt by The Wall Street Journal to paint the Viejas Band, and indirectly all tribal casinos, as irresponsible and heartless employers who use sovereignty as a convenient means of dodging their obligations to employees and customers.
Millman claims that employees at the Viejas casino, operated by the Kumeyaay Indians, have no rights because they are not union members. This is incorrect. The Viejas casino is unionized under the umbrella of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Even setting aside the error of fact, however, this position is astonishing, given the Journal's long-time distaste for unions and its unequivocal opposition over the years to minimum wage and worker rights laws. Has the Journal now decided that unionization is the only way to ensure the fair treatment of workers?
Mr. Millman seems offended that Viejas employees were not organized under the umbrella of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HEREIU), the huge organization that represents thousands of casino employees in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. That's an even more surprising position for The Wall Street Journal to take. According to recent media stories, the report of the President's Commission on Organized Crime cites HEREIU as one of four unions in the nation that are (direct quote) "... still plagued by mob influence." Is the Journal saying that Viejas should have invited HEREIU onto the reservation?
Nationally, most tribal casinos are not unionized, but the vast majority offer wages and benefits that equal or surpass those provided in union shops in the gaming industry. Tribes have learned that they must offer these added incentives to attract and retain employees in their casinos, which are often located in remote areas requiring long commutes.
The Journal story constantly points to tribal sovereignty as an obstacle standing between employees and fair treatment. This is completely without validity. Individuals with claims against tribes may sue tribes, just as they would any other business. The only difference is that these claims are usually adjudicated in tribal court. That is where Mr. Millman reveals his bias. He suggests that there's no point in litigating in tribal Courts because that would "effectively let a tribe decide a case against itself." Yet every day, people file suits against the state in state court. Isn't that "effectively letting the state decide a case against itself?" Or is it only Indian courts that are inherently unable to render fair decisions?
The whole issue of sovereignty is a great example of the double standard in action. All governments, not just tribal governments, can and often do invoke sovereign immunity to protect themselves from excessive or frivolous claims that could fraudulently cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Many tribes, including Viejas and most Minnesota tribes, carry liability coverage with well-established, licensed carriers. They often waive sovereign immunity under certain conditions in order to resolve claims arising from injury or accidents on casino premises. Tribes consider this an investment in the good reputation and goodwill we all want to retain in order to keep our employees and customers feeling safe and secure.
That isn't the only double standard that rears its ugly head in this shoddy piece of reporting. Mr. Millman seems offended that "? motorboats sit in the driveways of many tribal members ... Some members may be making as much as $100,000 a year from gaming." Imagine the nerve of these Indians, buying boats and making money! No doubt a search of The Wall Street Journal's archives will reveal many editorials in which the writers expressed outrage that Donald Trump and Steve Wynn have boats in their driveways and could be making as much as $100,000 a year. We've got a news flash for you, Mr. Millman. You probably won't see Donald Trump's boat parked in his driveway. That big ol' yacht wouldn't fit. And $100,000 a year wouldn't cover his annual bill for hair mousse.
There's another big difference between tribal casinos and the Donald Trumps of the world. Tribal casinos are not private, for-profit enterprises. They are, in most cases, the sole or primary revenue source for hundreds of tribal governments responsible for the health, education and welfare of thousands of tribal members. They are operated by self-governing nations whose sovereignty is recognized both in the U.S. Constitution and in the body of law. Although a handful of small gaming tribes have been successful enough to permit the accumulation of individual wealth by their members, the vast majority are using gaming revenues to lever their communities out of the black hole of despair and get a shot at the American dream. For most tribes, it's about building schools, homes, clinics and hospitals, repairing infrastructure, providing social services and revitalizing the culture and traditions that a century of poverty nearly killed.
For some strange reason, The Wall Street Journal seems to view Indian gaming as a threat. Perhaps this is to be expected, given the history of Wall Street itself, as summarized in a recent issue of Indian Country Today, a leading Native American newspaper. Back in 1643, Dutch settlers on Manhattan Island feared that the Algonquin Indians in the area might represent a threat to their own hopes for colonial expansion. The Indians were farming land the settlers wanted in the lower Hudson River Valley and on Long Island. When a group of Indians came to visit Colonial Governor William Kieft on the night of February 25, Kieft's soldiers surrounded two of the Indian camps and massacred a total of 80 Indian men, women and children. Fearing the conflict would escalate, Kieft built a log wall behind the settlement to ensure a reliable supply route. The road behind that wall became known as Wall Street.
Given the Journal's recent coverage of Indian gaming issues, however, it would appear that the wall is still intact and that its commitment to capitalism stops where Indian country begins.
John McCarthy is executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association.