Massacre at Agua Caliente

Indian tribes kick a little worker ass in the desert

Photo by Nick ShouEveryone who isn't totally nuts agrees that Native Americans have been treated like crap throughout U.S. history. They were decimated by European viruses like smallpox and syphilis, and then they were pushed off their land by white settlers and massacred by our nation's military before being crowded onto desolate reservations. Thanks to Indian gaming, those days are over.

Sort of. In the deserts and wastelands of California, Indian tribes are exacting retribution for centuries of oppression—one worker at a time.

During the past several years, every tribe with a reservation has gone into the gambling business. Because they operate on tribal land, Indian casinos pay no taxes and don't have to obey state or federal laws that protect workers. That's why California's 43,000 casino employees are among the most vulnerable in the state. They have no protection against racial, sexual or age discrimination; they have no right to sue for wrongful termination; and they have no right to organize a union.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is currently meeting with tribes who want to expand their casino operations with unlimited slot machines—a move that would likely create Vegas-style profits. In return, he wants to negotiate a revenue-sharing agreement that would divert millions of dollars in casino profits to the state's coffers. Meanwhile, organized labor is pressuring the governor to make another demand: that casinos extend to their workers the protections offered all other workers.

A vivid example of that pressure unfolded in Palm Springs on April 8, when 25 union officials and casino workers were arrested outside the Agua Caliente Spa Resort and Casino after refusing a police order to disperse. The civil disobedience, organized by the Hotel & Restaurant Employees (HERE) Union, drew about 200 people. Those arrested included Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union; Ada Torres, president of the Anaheim-based HERE Local 681; local clergy; and several former Agua Caliente casino workers.

"These workers have no protection at all," Huerta said shortly before being hauled away by Palm Springs' finest. "In some ways, they are treated worse than the farm workers—and many of them used to be farm workers. They are constantly harassed by management. They aren't allowed to speak Spanish to one another—even in private conversations. And they have no access to family health care. Most of their children rely on state-funded health care, so it's a drain on our taxes, too. We want the governor to make sure workers' rights are included in his negotiations."

HERE already represents several hundred workers at Indian casinos in northern California. Unlike their non-union counterparts, they enjoy cheap family health care and other job benefits.

"I joined the union a year ago," said Mary Navarrete, a protester who works at the Cache Creek Casino Resort near Sacramento. "As soon as we got the contract, I took my kids off Healthy Families and got them insured."

But the union has had less success trying to win union representation for about 1,000 Agua Caliente casino workers. In February 2003, the union asked for a meeting with Richard Milanovich, the tribe's not-so-indigenous-sounding chairman, hoping to secure a neutrality clause that would allow workers to join the union without fear of retaliation. Agua Caliente tribal leaders responded by hiring two union-busting law firms—Akin Gump and Exponent Inc. Within days, management began harassing pro-union workers and forced all employees to participate in a series of mandatory anti-union meetings.

"Three-quarters of the workers earn less than $10 per hour," said Jennifer Skurnik, HERE's Indian casino organizing director. "The companies offer health insurance for $280 per week, which nobody can afford. That's why the casinos actually bring state Healthy Families representatives to the casinos, so their workers can apply for taxpayer-funded medical care. We think that saves Agua Caliente at least $1 million per year."

Sondra Goeppner used to work at the Agua Caliente casino as a cocktail server, until the 63-year-old woman got fed up with being passed over for daytime shifts that were given to younger employees with less experience. "I left because of age discrimination," she said. "The only women who got promoted were younger girls who tolerated the beverage manager's lewd language," she said. "When I asked for better shifts, they told me that if I didn't like my job, I could leave. So I left. But I came here today to help protect the rest of the workers from that kind of harassment."

Graciela Ramirez is one of several current Agua Caliente workers who protested Thursday but weren't arrested. A mother of three, she said she relies on the state-funded Healthy Families program for medical care for her two youngest children.

"I've worked at the casino for five years," she said. "We've been asking the company for a union contract with affordable health care for our families. We've never gotten a response, except for meetings where they say the union is just a big lie. I'm afraid I'll lose my job for joining this protest, but that's why I'm here—so I won't be afraid anymore."

 
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