Art Pulaski: Labor and tribes: a needed partnership?

In early August, it seemed as though the 2006 legislative year would end
quietly, with few end-of-year surprises. Most legislative deals already had
been negotiated, with unions winning a number of important victories. On top
of the historic infrastructure bonds finalized earlier in the year, deals to
increase the minimum wage, create a real prescription drug discount plan,
and make changes to the workers’ compensation system already were “cooked.”

Little did we expect the August surprise: The Schwarzenegger administration
dropping a slew of Indian gaming compacts into the lap of the Legislature in
the last few days of the session. The Agua Caliente compact was first,
allowing the tribe to expand from 2,000 to 5,000 slots and build a third
casino. Then, more newly negotiated compacts came down fast and furious in
the final days of the session, like sandwiches flying down the chute at
Tootsies yogurt shop.

Compacts negotiated between Schwarzenegger and the Agua Caliente, Pechanga,
Morongo, San Manuel, and Sycuan tribes would have allowed the tribes to add
23,000 new slot machines within a 73-mile radius of Palm Springs. The
Legislature was being asked, in the last few chaotic days of session, to
ratify the largest growth of gambling in U.S. history.

We support tribal sovereignty and we support workers’ rights. The two are
not mutually exclusive. We believe that the state should use its sovereignty
as effectively as the tribes use theirs when negotiating tribal-state gaming
compacts. Just as the tribes effectively advocate for their members for
additional economic development opportunities, similarly the state should
use its sovereign right to negotiate for its constituents who work at these
extremely profitable casinos. At a minimum, the state should ensure that all
tribal casino workers, who are the engine behind this $7 billion industry in
California, have the right to organize effectively to ensure that they can
provide for their families with dignity and respect.

The California labor movement, joined by presidents of 15 international
unions, vigorously opposed the Agua Caliente compact. In a change from
gaming compacts negotiated in 2004, this one lacked crucial protections to
guarantee that workers have a real right to gain a voice at work and
organize a union. Because federal and state labor laws don’t apply on tribal
lands, the only defense that workers have is a collective-bargaining

Aggrieved workers who don’t get paid their due wages, work in dangerous
conditions or face discrimination would be forced to seek justice through an
internal tribal-grievance process. Workers who are attempting to organize a
union could be fired for just that. The Bush-appointed National Labor
Relations Board decided in 2004 that tribes are covered by the National
Labor Relations Act and are barred from such unfair labor practices.
And, no surprise, the tribes are sinking significant legal resources to
appeal this decision all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tribal gaming has become the fastest-growing sector in California. From
2003-04, job growth soared 17 percent, while the rate of growth for all
other industries was just 2 percent. Nearly 50,000 workers are now employed
by tribal casinos. Tribal-gambling profits have soared in the past five
years, now approaching $7 billion a year. Tribal political contributions
totaled $220 million from 1998 to 2003. The compacts would have allowed
casinos to grow to become the largest gambling halls in the country, far
surpassing Las Vegas as a gambling Mecca.

Indian gaming is an incredibly lucrative industry. The working poor who
clean the hotels, work in the restaurants, and staff the slot machines, they
are the engine behind this tremendous prosperity. We support tribes creating
wealth to help their members become self-sufficient. We also believe that
the wealth should be fairly shared with those who created it.

It’s important to note that Indian country isn’t monolithic with respect to
labor relations. In fact, over 5,000 workers at tribal casinos are covered
by union contracts as a result of the enhanced workers’ rights to organize
found in the 2004 compacts. These tribes have stayed neutral during
union-organizing drives. As a result, taxpayers are no longer subsidizing
these casinos by providing health care and social services to their

While some tribes move into the richest ranks of Californians, other tribes
remain dirt poor, with no access to jobs or resources. Perhaps the greatest
irony of this year’s conflict over tribal gaming is that organized labor and
the poorer tribes have joined together to battle the super rich gambling
tribes who are both resistant to treating their workers with dignity and
oppose sharing significant revenue with poorer Indian tribes or allowing
them to have their tribal gaming compacts ratified. The tribal leaders of
these poorer tribes have worked hard and understand and support the rights
of workers to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

The labor movement’s interests are the same as those of Indian tribes: to
gain economic prosperity and self-sufficiency for our members, our families
and for working people. We should–and we must–forge a partnership to
guarantee shared prosperity for all.

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