The new high-rise hotel at the Sycuan Casino Resort. Courtesy of the tribe

In my experience as a union leader, I’ve had countless conversations with workers fighting to build their union — and for most, it’s about respect, a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. As Dames Daniels, a banquet server at Sycuan Casino Resort, puts it, “I’m organizing the union because we should only have to work one job to take care of our families.”

Self-determination is a core principle of tribal gaming in California where tribes have the exclusive right to run Vegas-style casinos. And, since the first California gaming compacts were signed in 1999, tribes adopted the Tribal Labor Relations Ordinance, or TLRO, which should ensure that workers can decide whether to join a union free from interference from their employer.

The Sycuan workers’ organizing committee was ready to begin the process to organize their coworkers to join UNITE HERE Local 30, the hospitality workers’ union in San Diego County. On Nov. 2, 2019, workers decided to exercise their rights under Sycuan’s TLRO by sending the tribe their official Notice of Intent to Organize and committing not to disparage the tribe and to maintain labor peace.

Sycuan initially hedged and then refused to abide by the process laid out in the TLRO. After weeks of delay from the tribe, UNITE HERE requested arbitration. In response, the tribe claimed that parts of the TLRO were preempted by the National Labor Relations Act and therefore did not apply.

UNITE HERE then filed a petition to compel arbitration in the U.S. District Court for Southern California, and on Dec. 10, 2020, the court granted UNITE HERE’s motion. In early January, the tribe appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and also filed motions in the district court and in the Ninth Circuit to stay the arbitration, both of which were denied.

Sycuan adopted the TLRO as a component of the gaming compact that it negotiated with former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015. In California, tribes negotiate gaming compacts — contracts between the tribe and the state about how the tribes will operate their casinos — with the governor for ratification by the legislature.

The TLRO is a key part of tribal gaming compacts in California and crucial for casino workers’ self-determination. Under the TLRO, if the union agrees to non-disparagement and labor peace, the tribe then must remain neutral about whether workers should unionize and let the workers decide.

“As a slot attendant at Sycuan, I’ve faced harassment regularly on the casino floor,” said Cynthia Ramirez to one of our union organizers. “In my experience, the casino has a ‘guest over workers’ policy.”

“A few years ago, a guest was harassing me and kept inviting me to spend time with him. When I reported it to management, they moved me to a different section, and I never heard anything more,” Ramirez said.

“Now, we’re trying to form a union so we can have dignity and respect at work,” she said. “And the tribe responds by bringing in union busters to tell us bad things about the union and try to convince us not to join.”

When workers asked the tribe to be neutral and leave the decision whether to unionize to workers, the tribe refused. Instead of abiding by their TLRO, the tribe hired anti-union consultants — the Crossroads Group — to hold mandatory meetings with workers to dissuade them from forming a union. Sycuan paid the Crossroads Group over $66,000 to hold anti-union meetings daily between the end of January and beginning of March in 2020.

Workers at Sycuan deserve the right to choose whether to unionize as the tribe promised when it agreed to adopt the TLRO. We urge Sycuan to abide by its commitment to Californians and allow workers their process to form a union.

Brigette Browning is president of UNITE HERE Local 30, which represents hotel and hospitality workers in San Diego County.

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