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Gaming Guru

Rod Smith

Union, Tribe Trading Rhetoric

14 April 2004

A war of words is raging in the wake of a worker demonstration in Palm Springs, Calif., between the Agua Caliente Band of Chuilla Indians and the unions pushing to organize its tribal casinos.

More than 300 demonstrators marched Thursday in Palm Springs, demanding workplace rights and union talks at the two casinos owned by the Agua Caliente tribe.

Tribal Council Chairman Richard Milanovich complained in a statement released at the end of the week that the protest was staged by Las Vegas-based Culinary Local 226, aided by "front organizations" for Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.

He said the goal of "the meaningless protest" was to cut benefits for workers at the Agua Caliente Casino and Spa Resort Casino.

"This protest was a senseless attempt by the H.E.R.E. union, through out-of-towners, to limit the rights of employees working at our two casinos by publishing false accusations against the tribe," Milanovich said.

However, Culinary Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor and H.E.R.E. California organizing director Jennifer Skurnik both said Tuesday that no one from Las Vegas participated in the demonstration.

"They obviously don't care about the facts. No one from Las Vegas was there, although we support their efforts to get the same rights as Las Vegas workers," Taylor said.

Skurnik said although it was not unusual for the tribal spokesman to speak in hyperbole and deliberately misstate facts, she was shocked by "some of his outright lies."

For example, Milanovich said pay at the casino is better than at casinos in Las Vegas, although Skurnik said more than 75 percent of the tribe's workers make less than $10 an hour.

"Housekeeping jobs pay $8.50 compared with $12 in Las Vegas. They're the least desirable jobs and there is at least a $3 to $4 difference."

More important, said Skurnik, is that 56 percent of the Agua Caliente workers depend on state welfare for child health care insurance, an issue Milanovich did not address.

Milanovich emphasized the arguments that workers get more than minimum wage and basic workplace protections against harassment and discrimination.

However, Taylor and Skurnik said promises of protections without the right to appeal and resolve disputes in court or before regulators are meaningless when workers are victimized.

"(Milanovich) insinuates because (the Agua Caliente worker handbook) addresses worker rights that they are protected. That's a distortion because they have no right of appeal, no right to sue and no enforcement rights," Skurnik said.

For now, each side has its heels dug in.

Milanovich says it's all a question of sovereignty on which the tribe cannot and will not yield.

And while Taylor recognizes the tribe's First Amendment right to free speech, he said wishes they would get their facts right and recognize the rights of American workers in the workplace.