San Pablo Casino, Union Locked in Wage Debate

From Contra Costa Times - July 24, 2011

"The Tribal Council has approved a substantial allotment of money that can be used either to increase hourly wages or to cover insurance costs," said Doug Elmets, spokesman for the Lytton Band.

Elmets said the notion that the casino would fire anyone for union activism is absurd.

"There are plenty of employees active in the union," Elmets said. "Out of human courtesy we wouldn't do that."

"We have tried to accommodate this individual but the reality is that we're a business," Elmets continued. "It would make the situation difficult if not impossible to say to one employee, you can ... take three or four additional weeks off without any written or verbal confirmation from your supervisor." Elmets said Kalakheti never got the approval to leave.

Said Elmets, "There is no merit to any of these charges. We have always had and continue to have a good relationship with our employees, whether they are union or nonunion."

Elmets said the NLRB already has dismissed the union's claim that the casino terminated Kalakheti because of his union activity and that he is confident all of the union's claims will be dismissed.

Elmets said the casino is a successful business, and as such, requires "sound policies and pay scales that are consistent with other similar enterprises."

"We are providing our workers better benefits than other neighboring businesses such as Cache Creek, Golden Gate Fields and Marriott Hotels," Elmets said.

 

 

Casino San Pablo and its largest employee union are locked in an increasingly bitter stalemate over wages and benefits.

Unite Here Local 2850, representing more than 150 food service, housekeeping and miscellaneous workers, says the casino pays less-than-living wages and is squeezing the employees on health care coverage. The casino, owned by the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, says it has been hit hard by rising health care costs and that the deal it offers the workers, even with a wage freeze, is a good one by the industry's standards.

Starting pay of Local 2850 members at Casino San Pablo ranges from $8 an hour, or the equivalent of minimum wage in California, for porters and food servers, to $14.12 an hour for the lead cook. The average hourly wage for Local 2850 members at the casino is $9.50 an hour, said union organizer Max Alper.

Workers had been paying $26 a month for family medical coverage; that went up to $75 a month this year.

Located on the 9-1/2-acre Lytton Rancheria on San Pablo Avenue at San Pablo Dam Road, the casino employs about 400 people. About half are union members, including the 150-odd Local 2850 members, and about 30 members of the Service Employees International Union.

Unite Here seeks raises ranging from 15 to 21 percent at Casino San Pablo, depending on the job. That's what it would take to match labor agreements achieved at two other Indian casinos, Cache Creek in Yolo County and Thunder Valley in Placer County, the union says.

The casino, however, contends its workers get substantially the same deal as workers at Cache Creek.

The casino says it has been hit hard by the cost of health care insurance and other benefits that have gone up by more than 200 percent since 2003 and by 30 percent just since last year.

"The Tribal Council has approved a substantial allotment of money that can be used either to increase hourly wages or to cover insurance costs," said Doug Elmets, spokesman for the Lytton Band.

The union upped the ante on July 15 by showing up with an entourage at the casino's public entrance to demand reinstatement of a food service worker, Nirmani Kalakheti. The union says Kalakheti was terminated in late June while he was in his native Nepal attending the funeral of his father, who had died suddenly. The casino says Kalakheti resigned voluntarily by being absent for more than two work days without notification.

The two sides differ on whether Kalakheti received permission to be absent.

But the union maintains the real reason Kalakheti was terminated is because he is a union activist. Two weeks earlier, a photo of Kalakheti had appeared on a union flier.

"Our hard work is what makes the Casino succeed every day," Kalakheti is quoted on the flier. "But at the end of the day, our families are not succeeding. We can barely make ends meet and we struggle to even pay our bills. All we are asking is that the management respects us enough to offer us a fair contract like the workers have at Cache Creek and Thunder Valley."

Elmets said the notion that the casino would fire anyone for union activism is absurd.

"There are plenty of employees active in the union," Elmets said. "Out of human courtesy we wouldn't do that."

"We have tried to accommodate this individual but the reality is that we're a business," Elmets continued. "It would make the situation difficult if not impossible to say to one employee, you can ... take three or four additional weeks off without any written or verbal confirmation from your supervisor."

Kalakheti said his supervisor, food and beverage manager Mark Vincent, gave him a verbal OK to take off and fill out paperwork upon his return. A call to Vincent at the casino's food and beverage office was not returned. Elmets said Kalakheti never got the approval to leave.

The union has filed an unfair labor practice grievance against the casino with the National Labor Relations Board in connection with Kalakheti's termination, as well as several other grievances alleging threats against employees, interference with communications between the union and its members, refusal to provide information, unilateral and repeated rules changes, and failure to bargain in good faith.

Said Elmets, "There is no merit to any of these charges. We have always had and continue to have a good relationship with our employees, whether they are union or nonunion."

Elmets said the NLRB already has dismissed the union's claim that the casino terminated Kalakheti because of his union activity and that he is confident all of the union's claims will be dismissed. Alper said he is not aware of the NLRB dismissing any claims.

The union says the tribe is making a lot of money from the casino and could well afford to be more generous to the workers. The casino is on track to make more than $160 million in gross gambling revenue this fiscal year, a figure arrived at by extrapolating from San Pablo's budget and the terms of a 2003 Municipal Services Agreement between the city and the Lytton Band. Elmets said the casino is a successful business, and as such, requires "sound policies and pay scales that are consistent with other similar enterprises."

"We are providing our workers better benefits than other neighboring businesses such as Cache Creek, Golden Gate Fields and Marriott Hotels," Elmets said.

"That is ridiculously untrue," said Local 2850 President Wei-Ling Huber. The Downtown Oakland Marriott and Golden Gate Fields horse racetrack in Albany give much better benefits to its workers, she said. Union organizer Lian Alan, who is more familiar with the contract at Cache Creek, said the benefits there are similar to Casino San Pablo, but workers at Cache Creek get significantly higher pay, he said.

Under the 2003 Municipal Services Agreement, the casino will pay San Pablo $1.75 million in lieu of taxes this fiscal year plus 7.5 percent of gross gambling revenue. San Pablo's fiscal 2011-2012budget projects about $14.25 million in revenue from the casino, or 57 percent of the General Fund.

Several Local 2850 members, accompanied by Alper, took their case for better wages to the San Pablo City Council in April, asking it to weigh in on their behalf. But they got a chilly reception from Mayor Paul Morris, who told them the city could not intervene on their behalf.

Councilman Arturo Cruz, responding to an e-mail this week from Bay Area News Group about the labor stalemate and the union's wage demands, said he had no comment. Councilwomen Genoveva Garcia Calloway and Cecilia Valdez did not respond to similar e-mails.

Councilman Leonard McNeil said:

"As a retired union member my interest is focused on respect for fair labor negotiations and respect for collective bargaining rights. This is consistent with the Municipal Services Agreement. I understand that the union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board for unfair labor practices. I would hope that Casino San Pablo would be recognized for providing decent wages and working conditions and good benefits. In my opinion, fair wages and working conditions contribute to higher morale and productivity. I hope the Lytton tribe will not place itself in a position to be subjected to further opposition to urban gaming by those in the community and in public office if there is a perception that the union workers are being mistreated."

McNeil added that he cannot interfere with the labor negotiations, and suggested that arbitration could move the two sides toward "a contract that serves working people and the business interest of the casino."

On July 15, Kalakheti and his delegation left the casino premises after a tense but peaceful standoff with casino managers and security officials, joined later by four San Pablo Police officers. Moments earlier, in a brief conversation with the casino's director of security, James Grant, that could not be heard over the din of the casino, Kalakheti said Grant promised a meeting the following week with a casino official.

But on Monday, Kalakheti said, Grant called him to say there would be no meeting and that Kalakheti is persona non grata at the casino. Elmets said that account is substantially correct.

 

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