- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2006

SAN MANUEL INDIAN RESERVATION, Calif. — The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, once steeped in poverty, 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, the 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, a lawyer 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.

“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 D.C. Circuit, where oral arguments are expected in coming months. Both sides say 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.

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 office buildings and freshly landscaped homes.

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 is 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 has a contract to represent most workers at the casino.

The tribe said 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.

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 is far more extensive than rules in other states.



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