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One union sues another over California tribal casino workers

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LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A labor union has sued another union for allegedly trying to break its exclusive control over organizing workers in California's fast-growing tribal gambling industry.

Unite Here claims in the federal lawsuit that the Communications Workers of America violated an AFL-CIO mandate that restricted other unions from pursuing casino workers in the state.

"There's no rational explanation for this behavior," said John Wilhelm, president of Unite Here's hospitality division. "That's why the AFL-CIO has these rules, so that workers don't get impeded with competing unions. ... The biggest potential lost is setback to workers who want to have a union."

The breach of contract suit, filed April 27 in federal court in Washington, D.C., comes at a time when tribal casinos have been experiencing tremendous growth. There are currently about 50,000 workers at casinos and tribal administrations, a majority of whom are employed at casinos, according to a March report by the state Employment Development Department.

That work force increased 14 percent since the same month last year and was expected to double in the next decade, the report said.

The gambling compacts approved by then-Gov. Gray Davis, as well as the 10 agreements approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year, allow casino workers to form unions. Before then, unions were restricted from organizing on reservations, according to the California Nations Indian Gaming Association. Unite Here claims the AFL-CIO gave it exclusive rights over tribal casinos in January 2000.

Early last year, the suit says, the CWA sought access to workers at the Pala Band of Mission Indians' casino in San Diego County. Later, in March 2004, CWA President Morton Bahr sent a letter agreeing "to recognize Here's exclusive jurisdiction over the California tribal gaming industry," the suit said.

A Western regional CWA official last month told Unite Here that CWA intended to organize workers at the Morongo Band of Mission Indians' casino in Riverside County, according to Unite Here.

CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson declined to address the claims.

She said the union represents about 700,000 workers nationwide, including workers at two casinos each operated by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. Johnson said the union began representing workers at the two casinos before Unite Here was granted jurisdiction by the labor federation. Wilhelm, however, said he only disputes the union's recent drives.

An AFL-CIO panel is scheduled to hear the matter May 20 in Washington, D.C. A court hearing on the lawsuit has not be scheduled.

Unite Here represents about 950,000 active and retired hospitality and textile workers, including 3,500 workers at four casinos, including those run by Pala, Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians, Lytton Band of Pomo Indians and Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians.

Anthony Miranda, chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, said unions are having a tough time organizing tribal casino workers because the tribes provide good benefits.

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