Sycuan Casino / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Though 2020 and the pandemic brought massive disruptions to casinos and businesses of all kinds, for the Sycuan Resort & Casino, 2019 was full of major shifts, too. That year, the resort completed a $260 million renovation, and in a development that’s largely flown under the radar, its employees began attempting to form a union.

Since then, the pandemic and a legal battle have slowed down the organizing effort, but it continues and it eventually could have major implications for other tribal casinos and workers. The casino has also hired a well-known consulting firm to persuade workers to keep the union at bay.

The dispute is the latest chapter in a long history of fraught relations between organized labor and tribal casinos in California. On one side is a historically marginalized group and, on the other, are workers, many of whom are people of color working at or near minimum wage while keeping the floors clean and the drinks flowing.

The effort is a major test locally of the Tribal Labor Relations Ordinance, the collection of laws similar to the state’s labor laws but adopted by the tribes during their efforts to get casino gaming approved in so-called “compacts.”

Valid compacts are required for any tribe to run Class III gaming operations in the state and are legally binding agreements between tribes and state governments. Tribes negotiate the compacts with a state’s governor, legislatures ratify them and the Department of Interior must approve them.

The Sycuan Band’s compact with the state, which it agreed to in 2015, provides a process for “eligible” tribal casino workers at casinos with over 250 employees to select their own representation and engage in collective bargaining — though dealers, security, tribal gaming commission staff and cash counters are excluded. The TLRO requires the tribe to work with a union once one is selected by employees. It also outlines legally binding terms of conduct for both the tribe and unions.

A flier with UNITE HERE letterhead claims that the current TLRO language “covers over 15,000 workers at 19 tribal casinos across California.”

Initially, the tribe declined to provide the union with compact-required access to employees or an employee list until union representatives applied for and received gaming licenses, said Brigette Browning, president of UNITE HERE Local 30.

After “weeks of delay,” Browning said, the union requested arbitration, a formal process in which a third party is brought in to settle disputes. The Sycuan Band denied the request on the grounds that courts have called the validity of the TLRO into question, in some instances suggesting the National Labor Relations act supersedes it, said Adam Day, the Sycuan tribal government’s chief administrative officer.

Day said the tribe is obligated to follow federal law, which in its view rendered the union’s arbitration request, as well as the provisions of the TLRO, void.

UNITE HERE sued the Sycuan tribe in federal court, requesting that it be held to the TLRO and therefore compelled to enter arbitration. In December 2020, the court ruled in favor of UNITE HERE. The tribe appealed, and the case is currently before the 9th Circuit, which will ultimately determine whether federal or tribal law has jurisdiction over labor relations at tribal casinos.

“The fact of the matter is there is a legitimate legal question as to which labor law applies, and once that is decided, we will fully comply,” Day said.

Until then, Sycuan’s casino and hotel workers remain in limbo.

Mandatory Meetings Warned Workers Against Union Push

Between January 2020 until mid-March 2020, when COVID-19 shut down the casino, staff members were required to attend meetings during work hours run by consultants from Crossroads Group, which previously made the news for its work attempting to thwart union drives within Columbia Sportswear, among others.

According to a form filed with the federal Office of Labor Management Standards, Crossroads Group was hired by “Sycuan Resort Casino” in January 2020 at a rate of $400 an hour “to assist the employer with its communications efforts to advise employees of their Section 7 rights and furnish them with information related to third-party representation.” The labor organization identified on the form is UNITE HERE Local 30. Crossroads was paid $66,191.

“They hired union-busters to forcibly talk to every worker at Sycuan to talk about why unions are bad,” said Sycuan slot attendant Cynthia Ramirez, who identified herself as a pro-union “leader” among eligible staff. Ramirez said a Crossroads representative in the meeting she attended announced, “I’m here to tell you why you shouldn’t be part of a union.”

Aside from the forced meetings, Ramirez said the biggest problem in her work environment is a “guests over employees” mentality that permeates every aspect of work life at the casino. She said she understands that aspect of the job and that it’s part and parcel of working at a casino. But she thinks it goes too far.

“When I first started, I actually really liked the job,” Ramirez said, but her view of the benefits of the job began to change after learning about an employee disciplinary system that runs on a six-point scale. Employees would lose a point for being even one minute late, she said, but the punishment seemed inconsistent.

She also pointed out that the parking lot for non-management staff, accessible by a shuttle ride, is a 10-minute walk down the road and remembered getting an occasional warning about mountain lion sightings and rattlesnakes. She said a tree once fell and blocked the entrance, preventing staff from coming and going for more than an hour.

Even worse, Ramirez alleged that she’s subjected to frequent sexual harassment by guests in the High Limit room reserved for big spenders, where she spent time. She said she had to sign a vaguely worded agreement — not an official NDA, as far as she could tell — acknowledging that she had agreed to be in there.

“Only specific attendants are allowed to work in there,” Ramirez saidd. Though the job comes with close interaction with well-heeled guests, often requiring a more involved kind of attention from staff, working in that room is not considered a promotion and there are no additional perks, like a bump in pay, Ramirez said.

She choked up recalling one time in which a guest kept pestering her to go back to his room. She was taken out of the High Limit room after she complained, she said, and another female worker was put in her place. She said the harassment happens “extremely often” but she has no evidence the problems are ever dealt with.

Rob Cinelli, general manager of the casino, said that he is “pretty certain” he knows of the incident Ramirez described and that the guest was eventually expelled from the propertyd.

“We do everything in our power to protect our team members,” Cinelli said. “No matter what we do, it’s hard to prevent that sort of action from our guests — I don’t know any business, at least in the hospitality world, whether it be a bar, club or casino, where this doesn’t happen.”

Cinelli added that staff are voluntarily trained to “diffuse” situations involving inappropriate behavior and then report to management, who keep records of every incident and are instructed to warn the guests before asking them to leave. He said 10 incidents concerning “that sort of behavior” have occurred since the casino re-opened in May 2020 and each time the guests were banned from the property for at least one year.

“There certainly was action taken,” Cinelli said, but he and other managers haven’t always gone back to staff to inform them.

Ramirez also said pregnant coworkers were forced to work in smoking sections and were not allowed to trade shifts with other staff members who offered. Ramirez said she’s stopped sharing concerns because the message relayed to staff is often that those who don’t complain are more highly valued.

Cinelli said it’s not always possible to accommodate requests to work in non-smoking sections. Smoking is “prevalent” in a casino environment and Sycuan’s casino is “90 percent a smoking section” — something that this is made “very clear” during the hiring process, he said.

Drew Hooks, a line cook, said his job is made harder by what he believes is the casino’s intentional and chronic understaffing since the start of the pandemic.

“After the first couple of months of working there, they already started to make cuts to people’s hours and fire people,” Hooks said, referring to the crop of new hires who landed at the casino just after the renovation in 2019.

Though he said some of the people fired were “definitely not good workers,” they were never replaced and he and his coworkers are expected to pick up the slack, often with fewer or no breaks and short notice of shift changes. Most days they don’t take lunch, Hooks said, and there’s no recourse because the casino isn’t beholden to California’s labor laws.

Hooks said that, in the two years he has worked there, management has announced periodic bonuses — including a promised “longevity bonus” to employees who have worked there longer than four years — only to rescind the offer before distribution. He remembered management citing the costs incurred during the renovation as an excuse, something Cinelli confirmed.

The casino’s financial performance was strained in 2019, Cinelli said, but the casino did pay out Christmas bonuses to everyone. The longevity bonuses and Christmas bonuses came in 2020, he said.

Hooks said he learned about coronavirus outbreaks at Sycuan only by “reading it in the paper,” but he did one time when his manager urged him to get tested and stay home because a fellow kitchen worker got sick.

‘There’s a Lot of Fear’

Sycuan says it remains committed to providing a safe and supportive work environment.

“We have a very satisfied and engaged workforce as a result of our tribal council and casino management providing a positive and engaging work environment and all the benefits Sycuan offers,” Day said.

Day said employee surveys continually indicate workers are happy with their jobs and are proud to work for Sycuan.

Ramirez had a different interpretation of the employee surveys. She said she was required to participate, and though she was assured it was anonymous, she was required to input her badge number to access the survey.

While both Ramirez and Hooks said there is strong support for unionizing among their coworkers, there is a pervasive feeling of fear, too.

“There’s a lot of fear because of how powerful the tribe or tribal council, I should say, is,” Hooks said. “That’s where the power actually lies. If you work for the city and they were treating me wrong, it wouldn’t be the responsibility of all San Diegans to fix that, it’s the people who work in the city government. It’s the same thing.”

Hooks, who is also engaged in political activism apart from his job at the casino, was thoughtful about the various intersections at play in this labor dispute.

“It’s no secret of the atrocities that have been done to their people and all indigenous people across the country,” Hooks said. “There’s also the idea of sovereignty, what does it actually mean? If I can be real, how much justice are you actually providing not only for your people, but for the people you are bringing on if you’re just replicating the same systems that brought the atrocities in the first place?”

The concept of sovereignty frames all tribal issues, especially concerning things like labor laws and the legislative bodies and courts that regulate them. They are nations apart from the U.S. but deeply affected and enmeshed with the systems around them. Tribes are at the mercy of economic fluctuations.

“Unlike most governments, tribes don’t have a tax base,” said David Kamper, co-chair of the American Indian Studies Department at San Diego State University and author of “The Work of Sovereignty: Labor Activism and Self-Determination at the Navajo Nation.” “That’s, in part, because of the court system, which has made it difficult for tribes to get a tax base from anyone other than their own members.”

Historically, tribes turn to mining or tourism to fund their communities and services.

“Some really smart native legal minds came up with tribal gaming, because it takes advantage of tribal sovereignty and issues of federal and state law around gaming,” Kamper said.

In the case of Sycuan, gaming has allowed the tribe to become an economic powerhouse, and one that is also very politically active. It donated more than $886,000 to various politicians and initiatives in 2020. The tribe owns the U.S. Grant hotel in downtown San Diego and is a major supporter of the San Diego Padres, in addition to many local politicians and other charitable and civic organizations (including, in the past, Voice of San Diego).

While exact and up-to-date figures are not publicly available, an oft-cited financial report commissioned in part by the Sycuan Band in 2016 that cited 2014 data gives a rare glimpse into the financials of California’s tribal casinos.

Tribal gaming operations in California generated an estimated $7.8 billion in economic output in 2014, according to the report, and supported over 63,000 jobs statewide — 80 percent of which were staffed by non-tribal members. Tribal gaming operations added $5 billion in value to the California economy that year, the report says.

Sycuan is considered one of the largest and most successful casinos in the state. By 2015, the Sycuan Band had contributed $36.5 million to the Revenue Sharing Trust Fund, which helps distribute tribal gaming income to other tribes that don’t have gaming operations, the second-most out of any tribe in California. That year alone, the tribe deposited more than $2.2 million.

While the state has benefited from the largesse flowing out of tribal casinos, labor relations have been a tougher sell for both parties. Labor relations in tribal communities became a hot-button issue when gaming economies grew and non-tribal members needed to be hired in greater numbers, mostly during the 1990s. Unions already had a strong presence in gaming and hospitality, so labor followed.

The state can have leverage with tribes when they are negotiating agreements on what casino gaming is allowed. Kamper said labor unions demanded inclusion of the TLRO during the heated battles of Propositions 5 and 1A in the late 1990s.

Because the dispute between Sycuan, its workers and UNITE HERE is now being litigated in federal court, it remains to be seen which way the pendulum will swing.

In the meantime, some of Sycuan Resort & Casino’s workers have kept the union drive alive while they wait for a decision.

“We want respect,” Ramirez said. “We want to be treated on equal ground.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Sycuan’s political spending in 2020. It contributed $886,861.67 to political candidates and causes. 

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