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Rod Smith

Union Plans Protest in Palm Springs

7 April 2004

A hotel union plans a major demonstration, including sit-down strikes and possible arrests, on Thursday as part of the first statewide gaming industry demonstration in California.

Jennifer Skurnik, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union's organizing director in California, said the rally at the Agua Caliente Tribe's Spa Casino will be the biggest ever in Palm Springs, Calif.

She said the key is issue for the union is tribal sovereignty that exempts casino workers, including 43,000 in California, from state and federal labor laws, including discrimination, harassment, minimum wage and workers' compensation statutes.

For operators and workers in Las Vegas, it is also important to have equal treatment of workers, said D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of Culinary Local 226, the local affiliate of the international union.

Skurnik said the purpose of the demonstration, which is expected to draw more than 300 workers, will be to highlight "negligent employment practices" at the tribe's two casinos and to pressure management to begin bargaining with the union, which it has refused to do for a year.

"I know that's not big by Las Vegas standards where thousands turn out," she said. "But in Palm Springs, it will stop the traffic."

She said the protest is designed to head off California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's compact negotiations with the tribes before the problem of workers' rights has been addressed.

Schwarzenegger is negotiating major casino expansion rights with a half dozen California Indian tribes in return for $1 billion or more from the tribes to help solve the state's budget problems.

Taylor said in negotiating with Schwarzenegger, the tribes have acknowledged they are willing to give up sovereign rights to expand casino operations. Taylor said it is important to the union that workers are not left behind.

Civil rights activist Delores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farmworkers with Caesar Chavez in the 1960s and who will lead the protest, said the tribal casino workers' situation is identical to the plight of farm workers 40 years ago when they were exempted from state and federal labor laws.

Skurnik said a handful of tribes have been willing to work with her union. But most, especially the Agua Caliente in Palm Springs, have resisted.

Others, however, doubt the union can affect tribal intransigence to organizing efforts.

"Because Indian nations are effectively autonomous, their choices don't have to reflect U.S. laws which doesn't bode well for union involvement," University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor Hal Rothman said.

"California's revenue situation is so dire and 'the governator' has hung so much on his ability to raise revenues from gaming (operators), that there is no slowing expansion there," he said.

And Fulcrum Global Partners gaming analyst Joe Greff said with a Republican governor, there is little incentive for the tribes or their casino management partners to work with the union.

The Agua Caliente tribe, which already operates two casinos in the area, plans to expand its Spa Casino into a $400 million complex within five years.

MGM Mirage has recognized union workers at its Las Vegas operations and has shared consultants with the Agua Caliente. However, it has no operating agreement with the tribe, and spokesman Alan Feldman declined comment on the Thursday events.

Station Casinos, which operates the Thunder Valley Casino outside Sacramento, Calif., has agreements in place with the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria, the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria and the Northfork Rancheria of Mono Indians near Madera, all in California, in addition to its management of Thunder Valley.

Station spokeswoman Lesley Pittman said her company, which is not unionized in Las Vegas, leaves the decisions involving union organization in California entirely to the tribes with which it has partnered.

Caesars Entertainment in February announced an agreement with the Big Sandy Band of Western Mono Indians to manage a $200 million tribal casino near Fresno, Calif., and is negotiating a management agreement with the Pauma-Yuima Band of Luiseño Mission Indians in northern San Diego County. Caesars spokesman Robert Stewart declined to comment on the union's organizing efforts.

And Harrah's Entertainment since 2002 has operated Harrah's Rincon Casino and Resort, a $125 million hotel-casino in the San Diego area, under a five-year agreement with the Rincon San Luiseño Band of Mission Indians, the casino's owner.

However, the company has announced no further expansion plans in California, and spokesman David Strow declined to comment on the organizing efforts.