California’s logjam may be easing

Jun 12, 2007 4:39 AM

After months of delays and pressure from labor unions, state legislators are reaching out to some of the California’s most powerful Indian tribes, seeking a compromise that could seal multibillion-dollar gambling deals signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, has told organized labor it will not get what it wants in the gaming compacts and is discussing revisions on other issues that could be made without renegotiating the compacts, knowledgeable sources said.

That revelation has spurred intense negotiations over the past week aimed at breaking the long impasse. The Pechanga tribe near Temecula was on the brink of a deal, although an aide to the speaker said nothing had been finalized.

Núñez and other legislators have been in talks with the tribes for months. But the negotiations took off after Núñez invited leaders of four of the tribes to lunch in his office last week.

"We’re talking to see what we can work out," Danny Tucker, chairman of the Sycuan band near El Cajon, said afterward.

A few days earlier, sources said Núñez told state and national labor leaders in a conference call that he would not be able to get their key objective included in the gambling compacts — a collective-bargaining tool known as card-check neutrality.

Labor leaders say card-check neutrality — the ability to organize workers simply by signing up a majority on cards expressing support for a union — is necessary to protect easily intimidated casino employees, who work under surveillance cameras that permit almost constant scrutiny by management.

But the five tribes with pending compacts — Sycuan, Pechanga, Agua Caliente of Palm Springs, Morongo of Riverside County and San Manuel of San Bernardino County — adamantly oppose tougher labor provisions in their compacts, which already permit unions approved through secret-ballot elections.

"Sycuan employees have had the right to organize ”¦ since our compact took effect in May of 2000," Tucker told a Senate committee in April. "For the past seven years, no union has made any effort to organize our employees."

Since California voters legalized Indian casinos in 2000, the state has become the nation’s biggest tribal gaming market, with nearly 60 casinos that generated $7.7 billion in revenues last year.

The pending compacts negotiated by Gov. Schwarzenegger would allow the five tribes to collectively add up to 22,500 slot machines — doubling and in some cases tripling their existing operations — in one of the largest gambling expansions in state history.

In return, the tribes agreed to give the state a larger cut, projected at more than $22 billion over the life of the compacts that would expire at the end of 2030.

The Department of Finance estimates the state is losing nearly $1.3 million every day the compacts are not ratified. But that is a fraction of what the tribes — already among the nation’s wealthiest — are losing.