As chairman of the Viejas Band, I was amazed and stunned by the story on Kumeyaay Casinos in San Diego County in the May 7 issue of the Wall Street Journal. I was stunned that such a positive story about tribal casino employment for documented Mexican Nationals, who cross the border to work in San Diego County, could be turned into such a negative piece about tribes as employers and business owners.
We Kumeyaays are in good company, as the Journal seems to have targeted everyone and anything in Indian country to complain about from outlawing Indian team mascots to Indian Country Today.
Viejas has had a policy of openness to the press, believing it was important to tell our story, because we know it's a good one. With a few exceptions in the news media, our side of every story has been fairly and articulately presented. But lately, the media environment has been shifting. Significant examples are the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal.
It appears the members of the press are bored with the good news and are reaching for stories that incriminate and indict Indians and Indian gaming. The cause of this shift should be of concern to all of us. Could it be that Indians are getting too much economic and political clout? As if the white American media is in the position of deciding what is too much for Indians, or any other race of people, when they turn a blind eye on history and the activities of wealthy corporate friends.
One wonders how people with a background of genocide, driven by greed and rationalized by racial and religious superiority and colonialism, feel they are in a position to challenge and limit the economic and governmental achievements of Native Americans.
For once the rules of the game are working to our benefit. However, there seems to be a small but growing groundswell to change the rules. From United Property Owners, Stand Up for California, the petroleum marketers, grocery retailers and now car dealers, to states' attorneys general and the Supreme Court, Indians are facing new challenges that seek to limit our economic growth and return us to governmental impotency.
Even more disappointing to me in the May 7 WSJ article, was the fact that Viejas Casino and Band of Kumeyaay Indians were used as an example to support misrepresentations of fact as found in the story's three headlines. The reporter had to omit information he had and take quotes and information out of context to achieve this.
Let's start with the first headline: "House Advantage: Casinos Win by Partly Avoiding Costly Labor Rules." Interesting, that the latest WSJ editorial, "Casino Nation," May 14 issue, criticizes Governor Pataki of New York for making a "sweetheart deal with labor." In the article about San Diego County casinos the criticism was just the reverse. The implications were that we weren't open and responsive to the rights of unions and employees.
Which is it? Are unions good or bad? Or is it just a matter of when the WSJ is writing about Indian country that its editorial positions towards unions and workers' rights are flexible?
The next headline: "Sovereignty Helps Shield Them From Unions and Lawsuits And Can Limit Worker Benefits," is neither an honest nor correct statement. The fact is, Indian casinos in Southern California are creating jobs and providing benefits that low-income wage earners rarely enjoy, like medical, vision and dental insurance, union representation, or the right to union representation, good wages, workers compensation and disability coverage, as well as 401K and life insurance options.
The documented national with a work permit on which the reporter focused is an unskilled 55 year-old employee, who travels from Mexico to his job as a bus person at the Viejas Casino. He had a heart problem that was treated and covered through Viejas Casino medical insurance. He returned to his job upon his doctor's authorization to a job that was held for him in compliance with the federal Family Medical Health Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
He is represented by a union ? the Communication Workers of America ? and earns $8.15 an hour (well over both state and federal minimum wage regulations) and accrues sick and vacation pay, an annual financial incentive for performance and a monetary Christmas gift. This is compared with 40.35 pesos per day, or $5, which is the average daily minimum wage in Baja California.
California casinos, per the Tribal-State Compact, recognize the right of employees to choose union representation or not. The compact also ratifies ordinances and a workers compensation plan comparable to that of the state system. We are self-insured, pay claims, and provide access and dispute appeal procedures to employees with work-related injuries. All of which is more protection and benefits than workers in similar job classifications receive in San Diego restaurants and hotels. A little research into the Human Resources Survey of those associations would have shown that the Viejas Band and other Indian casinos are at the top of the curve in employee wages and benefits.
It is implied that the 55-year-old bus person in the story was cheated out of workers compensation he would have received had he worked somewhere other than at a business under tribal sovereignty.
The reality is that he never applied. He was well aware of the process since he filed a minor claim in 1996 for a coffee burn. With a work force of 2,500, Viejas Enterprises handles 240 to 250 claims annually, which is well within the national average. Heart disease is rarely recognized as job-related without very precise medical proof. This is true whether an employee works for the federal, state government or any private business. It's probably true at the Wall Street Journal.
So how did the story go from, as the reporter intimated, "an anecdotal story of border employment," to questioning the honor, integrity, honesty and fairness of Indian-owned casinos? Unfortunately, only he and his editors can answer that question.
But the final headline: "Some Say It Beats Field Work," meaning picking lettuce and other crops during the growing seasons, is a wild stretch of the imagination and insult to the migrant workers who have suffered so much and fought so hard for very few protections. Field laborers fight against pesticide poisoning and to have portable rest rooms on site. They often live in cardboard improvised houses. Yes, they have won many rights through the United Farm Workers.
But most 55 year-olds would prefer regular 8-hour-a-day jobs that are in safe and comfortable work environments, with benefits like a regular paycheck and expensive medical care coverage to protect their families.
At Viejas Casino, employees do not come in races or nationalities. They are hired as people to fill specific functions and we treat them that way, equally and fairly with as many sophisticated policies and departments devoted to employee related issues as any large company.
We do not profit at the sacrifice of others. We have been in the shoes of those who face employment discrimination and wages that perpetuate poverty rather than create self-sufficiency. Many of our people still are. Indians continue to have the highest unemployment rates, lowest income averages, highest infant mortality and suicide rates and other poverty related social impacts.
American Indians are far from economic reparation or achieving the rights we have as governments. We have far to go to recover from the ravages of American history or to fully participate in the American Dream of economic freedom and equal opportunity.
It would appear that some powerful interests are beginning to feel that small advances made by a few tribes into the economic and political status quo may be too much for American Indians. Watch your back, Indian country. We are winning a few points, which may mean that some people want to change the rules of the game to our disadvantage.
Steven TeSam is serving his first term as chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. The Viejas Band is owner of the 10-year-old Viejas Casino in Alpine, Calif. Chairman TeSam was formerly vice chairman and has served as council member in the past. The Viejas Band was a major contributor and participant in the two ballot initiatives passed by California voters to allow casino gaming on Indian reservations. Recently Chairman TeSam and Viejas council members worked with state legislators to pass an education bill, which will provide curriculum in California public schools on the contemporary, governmental and historic status of California Indians.