Casinos not exempt from law

Indian gaming must comply with labor codes, board rules

A federal labor agency ruled it has jurisdiction over Indian casinos, which could aid unions in their efforts to organize tribal workers, including the two Agua Caliente operations in the Palm Springs area.

The immediate impact of the National Labor Relations Board’s decision late Friday was unclear.

It overturned nearly 30 years of precedent, which had basically left tribal businesses outside of federal labor jurisdiction.

But the board held that since tribal casinos hire many non-Indians and compete with commercial gambling operations they must comply with federal labor laws.

In California, tribal casinos and governments employed 44,300 workers in April, up 16.6 percent from April 2003. Coachella Valley casinos employ about 5,100.

Jacob Coin, executive director of the Sacramento-based California Nations Indian Gaming Association, said 90 percent of the people working for the tribes are not Indian.

The federal board’s decision was a surprise to many observers. Its impact on the Tribal Labor Relations Ordinance negotiated in 1999 as an adjunct to the gaming compacts the tribes have with California was not known.

“We were disappointed,” said Mark van Norman, executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association. “From our point of view, (regulation) of tribal government employees is central to tribal sovereignty.”

“This goes so far against the grain as to be unbelievable,” said Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs.

He said the tribe was taking a wait and see attitude but was confident the NLRB ruling would be overturned.

The ruling could give a boost to the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union’s efforts to organize the Agua Caliente’s two area casinos, which employ about 2,200, and at tribal casinos throughout the country.

The case before the NLRB involved the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians of Highland and the efforts of the Communications Workers of America and HERE to organize its workers.

Both Milanovich and Van Norman said they expect the decision to be appealed.

“There’s a long way to go before this thing has broad applicability,” Van Norman said. “It is pretty unusual for the agency to break with the past like that.”

The labor board said its decision was difficult because it had to balance tribes’ sovereignty against federal labor policy.

The board said it was changing its standard and putting tribal casinos under federal labor regulations because they have become large employers of non-Indians.

“That (new) standard takes into account those aspects of tribal sovereignty, which have a rich tradition in our nation’s history yet at the same time accords due recognition of the federal government’s superior sovereignty and its role in setting and regulating national labor policy,” three board members said in their decision.

One member dissented, saying the decision impinges on tribal sovereignty, which can only be limited by Congress.

“The board has never before asserted jurisdiction over an Indian-owned and operated business located on a tribal reservation,” said board member Peter Schaumber.

“All sense of righteousness is going down the drain. I just can’t believe it,” Milanovich said.

“It is impossible to calculate the impact if this decision were allowed to stand.” he said.


Milanovich said the Agua Caliente Band was among the first tribes in California to build labor rights into its compact with the state so it’s impossible to know what would happen if the NLRB ruling was enforced.

Milanovich said the tribe has not had any direct dealings with HERE, though the union has sponsored several activities aimed at drawing attention to its efforts to organize workers.

In April, 25 people were arrested near the Spa Resort Casino in a protest seeking more worker protections, and higher wages and health care benefits.

Spokesmen for HERE in Palm Springs and Sacramento had no comment Tuesday on the NLRB decision.

Data recently released by the state Employment Development Department showed that employment for California Indian tribes increased nearly 17 percent from last year, with gains leading all but two major industrial sectors in the state.

Tribal leaders say the jobs are becoming more sophisticated as they move beyond traditional casino operations to ventures such as convention planning, water bottling and even tire recycling.

Coin of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association said tribes are building a shopping center in rural Alpine, for example, and San Diego-area tribes are building hotels and golf courses.

The job growth trend is stoked in part by major casino expansion projects and tribes’ involvement in other types of businesses.

And according to one economist, tribal expansion outside of gaming could have a lasting impact on the types of jobs that non-tribal businesses bring to the Coachella Valley, at places such as manufacturing and distribution plants.

Employment at the six casinos in the Coachella Valley, operated by five tribes, is expected to rise in the coming months, as expansions are completed at Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio and Casino Morongo in Cabazon.

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