SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Typically a budget subcommittee on health care hearing of the California state Assembly is a fairly sleep inducing affair, but if the right blend of union representatives and tribal leaders are thrown into the mix, all hell can break loose.
The California Assembly Budget Subcommittee, responding to a report from the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (H.E.R.E.), held a hearing on April 1 that turned contentious and led to raucous debates in the halls of the California Capitol building.
Assemblywoman Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park, is the chairwoman of that committee and had pushing for the hearing for the last few months. The meeting had been delayed the original March 18 date for this hearing after an uproar from tribal leaders who complained that they were not being consulted on the matter and demanded access to the meeting, which was then rescheduled.
Ostensibly, the purpose of the hearing was to examine whether workers at the Agua Caliente casino in Palm Springs are being forced to enroll in government health care programs that simultaneously cost the government $1 million and provide that savings unfairly to the tribe.
The tribes, however, contend that this is a cynical power grab by H.E.R.E., who funded the study, to force tribes to allow that organization to unionize tribal casino workers. The California tribal/ state compacts, which are currently under re-negotiation, stipulates that tribal employees have the right to organize as long as enough employees sign a petition for any given union.
H.E.R.E. has thus far been unsuccessful in their attempts to gain access to most tribes, most notably at Pechanga, because of the lack of signatures during their organizing bids. Several tribal sources say that the union is using the state as a vehicle to force labor agreements on tribes, whether the employees want them or not.
However, a few tribes, such as the Rumsey Rancheria, have allowed H.E.R.E. to have exclusive organizing rights with their employees, though they did not vote on the matter.
Another tribe, the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians also cut a similar deal with H.E.R.E. though they have not as yet opened a proposed casino in an old card room in urban San Pablo, near San Francisco, thus not technically having any employees yet.
The April 1 hearing was a chance for tribal leaders to respond to the H.E.R.E. report, and the meeting was divided into two one hour panels in which H.E.R.E. supporters were allowed to voice their opinions and a second hour that featured tribal opponents.
Among the featured speakers in the first hours was Eric Nilsson, a professor of economics at California State University, San Bernardino, who was one of the contributors to the Agua Caliente study. His focus was largely focused on the health care issue at Agua Caliente and said that his study had shown that the tribe was encouraging workers to enroll in state taxpayer funded health programs and simultaneously discouraging them from buying into the tribal health insurance.
Nilsson bristled at suggestions that his report was politically biased.
"There's no political bias involved," said Nilsson from the stand.
In an interesting twist, Fr. Bruce Cecil, a catholic priest at Our Lady of Soledad and a member of the Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) also testified on behalf of the union. He said that he was there because he felt that it was important to speak out on behalf of labor, as most of his parish consisted of members of the working poor.
Specifically, said Fr. Cecil, tribal workers would need a union, like H.E.R.E. with enough clout to handle their labor issues.
"There's only one union that that represents hospitality workers, and that's H.E.R.E.," said Fr. Cecil. "When they want to organize in Las Vegas, they go to this union (H.E.R.E.)."
After the meeting adjourned, Fr. Cecil got into a hot debate with Anthony Miranda, who works for both the Pechanga tribe and for the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA).
During his testimony Miranda had fired off several jabs at H.E.R.E., including the groups past links to organized crime. Miranda read from reports that dated back to the 1930's including one done by New York prosecutor Thomas Dewey who was later to famously lose a presidential contest to Harry S. Truman, which linked the group to organized crime.
"These are the kind of elements that we are busy trying to keep out of our operations and now they're being forced on us," said Miranda.
In the hall after the meeting, Miranda also pointed out that H.E.R.E. had been particularly contentious with California Indian tribes and had actually opposed Propositions 5 and 1A; the two ballot measures that legalized Indian gaming in California.
Once again the issue of sovereignty took center stage focusing the idea that a forced labor union would constitute a waiver of sovereign immunity. H.E.R.E. supporters had made the point that tribes, through business associations as diverse as Bank of America, Trump Corporation and Sodak gaming had already waived bits and pieces of their sovereignty.
However, tribal leader after tribal leader testified that an enforced deal with H.E.R.E. would be a waiver of sovereign immunity that they would not accept. Nor did many of the tribal leaders, excepting those with pre-existing deals with H.E.R.E., think that it was necessary.
A broad cross section of tribal leaders from various parts of the state testified that an enforced decision on the H.E.R.E. matter would further erode what little tribal sovereignty they had left.
Anthony Pico, the former chairman of Viejas pointed out that union organizing can not be mandated and that because of sovereignty each tribe has the right to decide what is best for them.
"It is not my place to speak for other tribes," said Pico. "But unionizing can not be mandated (by the state)."
The tribes were also quick to point out that many of them meet or even exceed the benefits currently received by H.E.R.E workers.
A typical example was testimony from Maureen Kerr who heads the human resources department for the Sycuan Band who read off a long list of benefits given by that tribe to their casino workers, including a medical clinic; a dental clinic; floating holidays and higher than average base pay.
John Crosby, the Director of Economic Development for the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians claimed that the unemployment rate in rural Tehema County dropped a full point after that tribe opened their casino in the town of Corning and that a full quarter of their work force came directly off public assistance.
"If the subcommittee is worried about tribal employees being on the public dole, we've taken many, many people off it."
Many tribal leaders also objected to the timing of the hearing during the compact re-negotiations, which many of them felt was a more appropriate place to discuss this issue. Several of the tribal leaders also criticized the union for singling out one Indian casino and many wondered aloud why similar hearings weren't taking place regarding employees of other gaming based industries in California such as card clubs and racetracks.
One of those who objected to this was Coyote Valley chairwoman Pricilla Hunter, whose tribe operated the only tribal casino in California without a compact, perhaps put it most succinctly.
"We (Coyote Valley) oppose the way that the state of California has singled out one casino."