Dont get the wrong idea about the quaint-sounding Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. They do a whole lot more than nostalgically recite the legend of the Cahuilla Maiden while giving guided tours of two picturesque canyons on their vast tribal lands in the Coachella Valley.
They also own two fabulously lucrative Vegas-style casinos one in Palm Springs, the other in nearby Rancho Mirage. With a mere 370 tribal members divvying up the proceeds (which they dont disclose), they are getting very rich. And very powerful. Theyre trying to muscle Palm Springs into allowing the tribe a massive third casino in its village-like downtown. They toss out huge slabs of political cash to a few Republicans but mostly to Democrats. Theyve become key players in what is perhaps the states most influential lobby. Theyre underwriting their own state initiative, which would open the door to a radical expansion of legalized gambling and even more earnings.
When the tribal leadership draws criticism for its hardball, bare-knuckled politics, its council chair, Richard Milanovich, doesnt hesitate to play the oppression card: Hey, were just oppressed and sovereign Indians trying to make a go of it in the white mans world.
What a scam. For notions of oppression apparently end abruptly at the cashiers cage or, more precisely, at the time clock. Milanovichs band has hired two union-busting firms to make sure, by any means necessary, his own workers dont overcome their oppression.
Meaningless and senseless is how Boss Milanovich wrote off last months act of civil disobedience when two dozen union supporters got arrested outside his tribes Spa Casino. The Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) has been focusing its efforts to organize the casinos 1,000 employees (only a tiny percentage of the states 46,000 Indian gambling workers have union representation).
Funny thing about these Indians: When it comes to enforcement of federal and state laws, including labor protection and heaven forbid taxes, they claim exemption under the cover of tribal sovereignty, yet have no problem sucking in tens and hundreds of millions in foreign U.S. currency.
Not nearly enough of that bonanza trickles down to their work force, which is, in blunt terms, a helluva lot more oppressed than their ever wealthier tribal bosses. About 60 percent are women, 70 percent are minorities. A UCLA-funded study reveals the average wage of what Milanovich calls his Team Members to be about $9 an hour, or $17,000 a year. I guess theyre on the losing team.
The tribe offers free health care for the employees, but they have to pay an exorbitant amount if they want their spouses and children covered as much as $2,900 a year. That price is so high that more than half of Agua Caliente employees use state welfare programs like Healthy Families and Medi-Cal to cover their kids. Thats right. Spend all night cleaning up ciggy butts from the blackjack tables, and then in the morning drive your kid to the county clinic and wait in line because your boss is too greedy to offer insurance.
No question this is a calculated policy by the tribe which saves an estimated million bucks a year by not subsidizing family insurance. About half of the states work force has family health care covered through their employers. At the Agua Caliente operation that figure plummets to about 4 percent. Milanovichs management crew even circulates fliers among casino workers encouraging them to attend seminars on how to get their families on welfare so that taxpayers and not the tribe can pick up the medical tab. What a mensch!
Its not easy taking on a tribe like the Agua Caliente. Theres a long list of politicians, starting with the dear, departed Gray Davis and his still-extant sidekick, Cruz Bustamante, who have greatly benefited from Indian casino contributions. As a result, Indian gambling in California is a virtually unregulated $5 billion industry that continues to expand tax-free. But the union led by the mighty Local 226 that represents Vegas workers is building quite an admirable coalition of community and clerical activists from the Palm Springs area to stand up to the Agua Caliente Band.
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Milanovich, however, as noted above, claims to be both unimpressed and immune to public shame. Maybe the only thing he understands is political force. Fortunately, he might be facing that as well. His tribe is locked in complex negotiations with the Governors Office, trying to renegotiate his deal with the foreign state of California. He wants more gambling machines approved. Schwarzenegger wants these guys to start paying taxes on their earnings. And the governor, to his credit, has said more than once that he wants labor rights in the casinos respected. Indeed, the few California Indian casino workers who have a union benefited directly from tribal agreements hammered out by old nasty Pete Wilsons administration, which was far less beholden to the gambling interests than was the mook who succeeded him.
Maybe its going to take, precisely, a Republican strongman like Arnold to get the Agua Caliente Band to do the right thing. Too many liberals immediately fold when the tribe shamelessly guilt-trips people or waves some cash around. But this isnt about Wounded Knee. This fight is about basic human dignity. And someone has to let Milanovich know that the dignity of his tribe will not be measured by the intensity of its defense of what is in any case a very nuanced sovereignty. Rather, it will derive from the way the tribe treats the less fortunate especially the less well-off, against whom the tribes handsome profits are leveraged.
See Marc Coopers new blog at www.marccooper.com.