Image: Vincent Duro
Ric Francis  /  AP
"The erosion in and of tribal sovereignty is a serious threat,” says Vincent Duro, vice chairman of the San Manuel tribe.
updated 9/3/2006 4:59:13 PM ET 2006-09-03T20:59:13

Once steeped in poverty, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians has become one of the nation’s wealthiest tribes thanks to casino gambling.

Now the Southern California tribe is using its riches to fund a potentially precedent-setting legal fight contending that tribes are exempt from federal labor laws because they are sovereign governments.

A ruling against San Manuel could open the door for unions to organize an estimated 250,000 workers — dealers, servers, cooks — at the nation’s 400-plus tribal casinos. Except for a handful in California, tribal casinos are generally not unionized; unions say it’s difficult to make inroads without the protection of federal organizing rules.

“It’s tremendously significant because tribal gaming is a target for labor, one of the significant targets for labor, and this would significantly open up the ability of labor to organize,” said Joseph A. Turzi, an attorney who has represented tribes in labor disputes but isn’t involved in this case.

Backed by many of the country’s leading tribal organizations, San Manuel is fighting a 2004 opinion by the National Labor Relations Board that asserted the board’s jurisdiction over tribal businesses.

Under the decision, tribes would be covered for the first time by the National Labor Relations Act that bars unfair labor practices and gives workers the rights to organize and bargain with employers.

‘An employer instead of a government’
“They’ve taken the tribe and simply defined us as an employer instead of a government, which we are,” said San Manuel Vice Chairman Vincent Duro. “That is, to me, really outrageous. The erosion in and of tribal sovereignty is a serious threat.”

The case is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where oral arguments are expected in coming months. Both sides believe the matter could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s that kind of a case,” said David Fleischer, senior attorney with the labor board, which has been joined in the case by the state of Connecticut and the Unite Here hotel and restaurant union, based in New York.

Once little more than brush-covered hills and palm trees 60 miles east of Los Angeles, the 800-acre San Manuel reservation now has attractive new office buildings and freshly landscaped homes.

From poverty to plenty
A booming $300 million casino, featuring 2,000 slot machines, opened last year and employs more than 2,500 people. The 180-member tribe could add 5,500 more slots under a deal just approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that’s awaiting approval by California lawmakers.

San Manuel officials said the tribe’s success shows Indian gambling is improving economic conditions for Indians — just as Congress intended.

The National Labor Relations Board argues that casino-owning tribes have started behaving more like traditional businesses than sovereign governments, and should be treated as such.

“Running a commercial business is not an expression of sovereignty in the same way that running a tribal court system is,” the labor board said in its opinion, approved by a 3-1 vote.

The litigation stems from a 1998 complaint filed with the labor board by Unite Here, then known as Here, that accused San Manuel of denying the union an opportunity to organize while allowing access by another union, the Communications Workers of America, which now has a contract to represent most workers at the casino.

The tribe claimed the labor board had no jurisdiction in the matter because of tribal sovereignty. In its 2004 opinion the board disagreed, dismissing as inadequate past board decisions to largely stay out of tribal affairs.

California the exception
Tribes around the country generally don’t operate under state or federal labor regulations. California is unique because state-approved compacts authorizing tribal casinos include a Tribal Labor Relations Ordinance that’s far more extensive than rules in other states.

But even California’s rules are considered weak by union activists because they don’t permit picketing on tribal land and allow strikes only after a bargaining impasse. Most private sector employees can strike at will.

“Workers are left without weapons to be able to force an employer who wants to fight unionization,” said Jack Gribbon, political director for Unite Here in California.

Even though San Manuel already has allowed unionization of many workers, a win by the National Labor Relations Board would undercut the tribe’s authority to deal with the union on the tribe’s own terms.

The tribe’s initial contract with the Communications Workers of America included a no-strike clause and language emphasizing tribal sovereignty and the tribe’s right to determine just cause in firing workers.

Labor rules at California tribal casinos have recently become an issue in the state Legislature, with unions prodding lawmakers to demand stiffer labor protections in new gambling agreements.

Some tribes have passed their own labor rules. At Connecticut’s two huge casinos, the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, which together employ well over 20,000 people, workers are prohibited from striking, according to Connecticut Assistant Attorney General Richard Sponzo.

Tribes contend that their workers are treated well, and that tribes are capable of dealing with labor issues themselves. A half-dozen San Manuel employees recently interviewed at the casino praised working conditions.

“They have really good benefits. It’s a good place to work,” said union member Joshua Velasco, 22, a poker room server who’s worked at the casino for more than three years.

Some workers call for safeguards
Workers at some casinos without unions complain about conditions and say more protection is needed.

“There are no laws, absolutely no laws, to protect me and my co-workers because we’re on tribal land,” said Denise De Groff, a 51-year-old maintenance engineer at the Agua Caliente casino in Palm Springs.

Tribes fear more than labor rules are at stake in the San Manuel case. In addition to fighting the National Labor Relations Board in court, they’re backing legislation in Congress to overturn the board’s ruling.

Tribes reason that a court decision in favor of the labor board could lead to limits on tribal sovereignty in other areas of federal law.

“Any time they take something away,” said Duro, the tribal vice chairman, “we never get it back.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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