Public Comment

Commentary: Don’t Forget the Casino Workers

By David Brody
Friday February 01, 2008

As Super Tuesday looms, mail boxes across California have been stuffed with slick fliers, plus a thick Voter Information Guide, about Propositions 94-97, which ask voters whether or not they approve new gaming compacts that would triple the slot machines—by 17,000—at the casinos of four Southern California tribes. I can imagine the head-scratching over the claims and counterclaims: Is so much gambling capacity healthy for the state? How big a tax windfall? How adequate the accounting safeguards? What kind of impact on poorer tribes? On the environment? Then my eye spied a paragraph by the legislative analyst about labor relations at the casinos. And on that, fellow citizens, I can shed some light. 

The legislative analyst is talking about collective bargaining. She tells us that casino workers have a right to union representation, under ground rules that encourage the flow of information but prohibit intimidation, and that let them decide by secret ballot. Then the zinger: “No union currently represents the [fill in any name you want] tribe’s casino employees.” Why, if they can have it, wouldn’t casino workers want union representation? All they have to do is look across the desert to unionized Las Vegas, where working people just like themselves are earning good wages, getting full benefits, buying homes, and entering the middle class. Are they blind? No, they’re afraid. 

The truth is, the system the Legislative Analyst describes is a swindle. Casino workers are not free to have union representation. The casino operator can interrogate them, one on one; he can make them attend captive-audience meetings; he can say their jobs are at stake; and he doesn’t have to put up with troublemakers. He fires them. These problems are not unique to the casinos. They are endemic under our national labor law, but with this difference. Other workers at least have recourse to the National Labor Relations Board. There’s no NLRB for the Indian casinos; they essentially police themselves. No wonder that casino workers keep their heads down. 

So the unions have come up with a simple reform. They propose that casino workers be permitted to signify by authorization cards whether they want union representation. Card check would deny casino operators a platform for coercion, just like that. In 2004, six northern California tribes accepted card check and their casinos operate today under collective-bargaining agreements. But 17,000 slots wasn’t enough to lure the southern gaming tribes. They adamantly resisted the card-check reform, and they prevailed. That’s why you’ll see California’s unions, across the board, right up there, prominent among the groups urging a No vote. 

But scan the campaign literature for who’s missing. The governor is out front for the yes side. But where are the other key players, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez? They’re nowhere to be seen, and for good reason. Card check is a Democratic issue. That’s literally true. It’s the core provision of a major Democratic labor bill that every presidential candidate backs and that every Democratic state legislator in Sacramento, including Perata and Nunez, signed a letter in support of. Then they turned around and, on their say-so, got the Democratic legislature to approve Schwarzenegger’s compacts. 

This is exactly the kind of politics that, for all its faults, justifies the referendum process. People don’t have to sit still when they are betrayed by their leaders. And in this case, they shouldn’t. 

The gaming tribes are simply rolling in money, and they are not shy about throwing it around politically. If you’re curious about why they got their way in these compacts, look no further. Everybody—the casino execs, the high-priced consultants, the politicians, the state’s General Fund—is feeding at the trough, everybody except the mostly minority workers who clean the toilets and empty the tills lack even the most basic protections because the tribal lands are beyond the reach of California’s anti-discrimination, workers’ compensation, minimum wage, and health and safety laws. 

Yes, low-wage workers will be lining up for those casino jobs. But California shouldn’t want low-wage workers. It should want workers who are lifting their families out of poverty, buying homes, and becoming active citizens, like the union chamber maids, baristas, and food servers who participated joyously in Nevada’s recent Democratic caucuses. Californians can make that happen. All they have to do is vote No and send the 17,000 slots back to the negotiating table. 


David Brody is professor emeritus of history at UC Davis.