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Union Fight With Indians Gets Personal

Tribal chairman rips into activist clerics, calling one priest trying to unionize casino workers 'a common thug.'

June 28, 2003|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

A wage and benefits dispute between a hotel workers union and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians of Palm Springs has escalated into a personal feud between the tribal chairman and a group of activist clergy.

The new trouble emerged late last month when the tribal chairman, Richard M. Milanovich, labeled Father Miguel Ceja "a common thug" after Milanovich was confronted outside tribal headquarters by Ceja and about 20 other members of the Coachella Valley Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, or CLUE.

The group demanded that Milanovich sign a "Code of Conduct" pledge, affirming the right of casino workers to organize. Milanovich refused and insisted that the workers were treated well and had no desire to organize. He also said he felt that Ceja had been verbally abusive.

"In all my years in Palm Springs, I would never have believed that a priest would behave like a common thug and peddle the union's lies," Milanovich wrote in a letter to casino employees. "It is a sad day when people believe that this conduct is acceptable."

The personal sniping underlines how the effort by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union to organize the workers at the tribe's two Coachella Valley casinos has intensified in recent weeks.

The union's steadily growing power base includes the 62-member clergy and laity group and the Coachella Valley Commission on Workplace Fairness, which is led by religious, academic and political leaders. Among them are Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America; Rabbi Paul Citrin of Temple Sinai in Palm Desert; and state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles).

On June 19, more than a dozen members of the clergy and laity group marched into the lobby of the tribe's Spa Resort and dumped dandelions and ginger roots on the front desk counter. They were quickly ushered out by hotel security officers.

Ceja said the "bitter herbs" were biblical symbols of the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt and "the way the casino workers suffer in poor working conditions, with low wages and benefits in an environment of intimidation and fear." As for being labeled "a common thug," Ceja said, "I think he's targeting me because my church is only a few blocks away from his casino."

Earlier this month, the commission reported that "the tribe allegedly uses a variety of unacceptable tactics to interfere with and influence workers' decision to organize. These tactics include surveillance, interrogation, threats of firing, threats of loss of benefits, making false and misleading statements about the union, discriminatory treatment of union supporters, and threats of closure."

That report followed publication in March of a UCLA survey showing that nearly half of the children of the roughly 2,000 people who work the floors of the tribe's Coachella Valley casinos are enrolled in federal Medi-Cal or state Healthy Families programs. The report asserted that the tribe saves about $1 million a year by offering family insurance plans that many of its lower-income employees said they cannot afford.

The tribe recently fired back with the results of its own "comprehensive review" of the issue. According to an analysis by research experts from the consulting firm Exponent Inc., the claims that children are forced to depend on government-subsidized health care have no validity.

Exponent found no "statistically significant difference" between the percentage of children of "eligible" workers enrolled in government-subsidized programs and the percentage of non-employee children in those communities.

Separately, tribal leaders said numerous casino employees have complained to them about union organizing tactics that have allegedly included repeated telephone calls, trailing employees home and showing up at their homes at all hours.

The union and its supporters dismissed Exponent's findings and the tribal leaders' allegations.

"Those are all absolute lies," said Jack Gribbon, the union's California political director. "We have depositions and letters from employees who say they are being mistreated by that tribe and its managers....

"We will continue to organize," Gribbon said. "Organizing drives can go on for years, and this one may end up being a war of attrition. We'll see how long it takes, but justice can take quite a long time."

In an interview earlier this week, Milanovich called that kind of talk outrageous. "If our workers want to organize for union representation, that is their right. But there's a process to follow, and its fulcrum is a secret ballot election. The union won't allow a secret ballot because it knows our employees don't want to organize," Milanovich said.

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