New compacts deal in casino workers

The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians run San Pablo Lytton Casino, shown in 2006.
The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians run San Pablo Lytton Casino, shown in 2006. Sacramento Bee file

Gov. Jerry Brown and Indian tribes resolved one of the most nettlesome problems facing the future of California’s gambling business, agreeing to a path that could open the way for more casino workers to unionize.

They deserve credit for their effort. Casinos have become part of California, and casino workers deserve protections that strong unions can provide.

California’s effort is in contrast to congressional legislation backed primarily by Republicans to strip the National Labor Relations Board of jurisdiction over workers at Indian casinos. Similarly, the Republican Party platform adopted last month in Cleveland includes a provision attacking Democrats for supporting the NLRB’s authority over tribal casinos.

The original gambling compacts signed in 1999 by then-Gov. Gray Davis and tribes included language purporting to allow for organizing. And a handful of tribes struck deals with labor, among them Yoche Dehe Wintun Nation, owners of the Cache Creek casino in Yolo County, and United Auburn Indian Community, operators of Thunder Valley outside Lincoln. But most large Southern California casinos blocked union efforts.

In the mid-2000s, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger renegotiated several casino deals but focused on persuading tribes to make sizable payments to the state in exchange for the exclusive right to operate Las Vegas-style casinos in California. In 2010, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals restricted the state’s authority to charge tribes.

Lacking authority to collect significant payments, Brown sought other ways to offset costs associated with tribal casinos. Most notably, the governor has insisted on agreements ensuring that casino workers would be able to unionize.

Last week, Brown signed compacts with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs and the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians near Temecula, tribes that resisted UNITE-HERE, the main casino workers’ union. The 25-year compacts require tribes to make multimillion-dollar payments to cover state costs of regulation, plus payments to municipalities and to tribes that have small casinos or none at all, but the payments will generally be lower than under the Schwarzenegger deals.

Yoche Dehe, for example, will pay $36 million a year and have the right to have 3,500 slot machines at two casinos. Pechanga, which is expected to pay $38 million a year, will have the authority to operate as many as 5,500 slot machines.

Agua will make payments based on its revenue – the compact doesn’t specify the amount – and have the authority to operate 5,000 slot machines spread among six casinos in the Palm Springs area, an expansion from the two casinos it now operates. All the casinos will be on tribal land.

The new deals don’t guarantee that workers will organize. But language in the new compacts ensures that labor organizers will have access to workers to make their pitches.

On Tuesday, as the Senate Governmental Organization Committee unanimously approved the compacts, Jack Gribbon, a representative of UNITE-HERE and a longtime foe of Agua and Pechanga, testified in support of the deals.

Gribbon, whose union represents 7,000 workers at six of the 60-plus Indian casinos in California, told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member that as many as 25,000 workers could become members.

Gamblers never beat the house. But at least under the deals Brown and the tribes struck, casino workers can have a fair shot at better wages and greater protections. And that’s worthy of praise.