GROTON, Conn. - The head of a union representing a quarter of a million
hospitality and casino workers has reassured the Eastern Pequot Tribal
Nation of the union's continuing support for the tribe's quest for federal
John Wilhelm, president of UNITE HERE's Hospitality Industries, said the
tribe has been doubly victimized: first by a legal process that requires
the tribe to establish "what is already fact" - their identity as the
oldest tribe in the state - and second, by being unfairly "bundled up" with
the anti-casino and anti-sovereignty opposition of wealthy residents and
politicians fighting another tribe on the opposite side of the state.
"I think what's been done to this tribe is a disgrace. What we're got to do
now is find ways to back up the tribe in its legitimate, long-overdue quest
to be federally recognized so the tribe can move forward," Wilhelm said at
a press conference June 17 at the tribe's office.
Wilhelm promised to help in the state capitol of Hartford and in
Eastern Pequot Chairman Marcia Flowers said the union has kept its promise
of support since its first contact with the tribe around five years ago.
"We told them we didn't have a timeline. They said they would be with us
all the way and [they] have been there," Flowers said.
In an agreement signed last year, the Eastern Pequots promised to remain
neutral if future employees want to unionize a casino the tribe hopes to
build in southeastern Connecticut. The casino would create an estimated
5,000 permanent jobs.
UNITE HERE formed last year by a merger of UNITE, the clothing, textiles,
and laundry union, and HERE, which represents approximately 265,000
hospitality and casino industry workers in the Untied States and Canada.
The union represents 440,000 active and 400,000 retired workers throughout
North America, including more than 7,000 in Connecticut.
Neither the nearby Mashantucket Pequots nor the Mohegan Tribal Nation,
which owns the two largest gaming casinos in the country, has allowed
unions to form among their 20,000 workers.
The southeastern part of the state, where the Eastern Pequots have a
200-plus acre reservation, has been hard-hit by defense industry cutbacks.
Many of the tribe's 1,000 members are unemployed or under-employed.
Flowers said she initially opposed unions during her career as a registered
nurse, but changed her mind over time and ended up being shop steward for
the union at the last hospital where she worked.
"I never regretted helping bring the union to the site. I learned the need
for workers to have a voice in job conditions," Flowers said.
Calling the tribe "progressive" in its approach, Wilhelm predicted great
benefits would result from an Eastern Pequot casino.
"This tribe, when it establishes the right to move forward - and it will -
will make an important contribution to the progress of this part of
Connecticut, for the state and entire country," Wilhelm said.
In May, the Department of the Interior's Board of Indian Appeals vacated
the BIA's decisions of June 2002 and January 2004 to grant federal
acknowledgement to the Eastern Pequots and the Kent-based Schaghticoke
Tribal Nation, respectively. The decisions were sent back to the BIA for
Both positive decisions were appealed by Connecticut Attorney General
Richard Blumenthal, a vehement opponent of federal acknowledgement of the
two tribes and of Indian sovereignty in general.
Opposition to the Schaghticokes by elected officials and wealthy residents
has rubbed off on the Eastern Pequots, Wilhelm said.
"Unfortunately, the tribe is a drive-by victim of the concerns of people in
Fairfield County and Litchfield County. The two [tribes] should not be
related. They have nothing to do with each other, nothing to do with the
historical record. I think the wealthy sections of Connecticut should deal
with their concerns without jeopardizing the Eastern Pequots' future,"
Opposition by wealthy interests is universal and must be resisted through
Native solidarity, Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky said.
"Native people and our sovereignty are being targeted all around the
country under the guise of anti-casino efforts. It must be stopped. Having
just met with many leaders at the National Congress of American Indians, I
know there is a growing understanding that it is time we stand together.
"This isn't a Connecticut issue; this isn't a California, Michigan,
Virginia or New York issue - this is an Indian issue and I am starting to
believe that this time, we as Native people will stand together to protect
our sovereignty," Velky said.