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Know the West

Unions take a gamble on California tribes


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

While unions may not spring up soon in the Intermountain West, California recently approved a constitutional amendment that opens the door to union organizing in 58 Indian-owned casinos. Proposition 1A, which passed on March 7 by nearly two-thirds of California voters, legalizes Indian casinos and sets on-reservation gambling guidelines. Because Indian nations have status as sovereign nations, they had been exempt from state labor law. Now, voters have accepted an agreement between California Gov. Gray Davis and tribes that says casino workers can organize.

Some service workers say the law is long overdue. Tribally owned casinos employ 20,000 workers and 90 percent of them are non-tribal members. "Most important to me as a casino employee is that Proposition 1A protects our right to unionize," says Ruben Gonzalez, a cook at Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio.

Bob Brooks, a cashier at Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez, says the law means Indians can raise their standard of living. "Creating union jobs in the casino will benefit hundreds of families and the businesses we patronize. The standard of living in the valley will improve. Why should Nevada be the only state to benefit from gaming?"

But although tribes have promised the governor that they will allow unions if employees want them, some of their support is lukewarm.

Richard Milanovich is tribal chairman of the 200-member Agua Caliente Tribe in Palm Springs; it is the only tribe in the state with a hotel, and employs almost 900 workers. Milanovich says that throughout negotiations for Proposition 1A, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union never treated Indian governments with respect, because it never addressed tribes as sovereign nations.

"If the union representatives had come to us and asked if they could organize, we would have said OK, let's do this openly," says Milanovich. "Instead, the union inserted themselves into the political process in a backhanded way, behind closed doors, behind a cover of darkness."

Milanovich says that although there's peace now with the union, and the tribe will respect its workers' choice to organize, he thinks the service-workers union will have a hard time gaining a hold at Agua Caliente's Spa Hotel and Casino.

"They will bring nothing additional to the table in terms of how workers are treated," says tribal spokesman Daniel Keenan. He says the casino already provides workers with above-minimum wages, eye care, dental insurance and pension plans.

Jack Gribbon, the union's political director in California, says that the new law is just a first step.

"Organizing anywhere is certainly not a cakewalk," says Gribbon. "If tribes want to put up a fight, it will be a challenge, just like in the commercial gaming industry.

"But if we develop an understanding that the goals of American Indians and of unions are the same - to provide economic and social justice for our respective members - then it should be straightforward."