Betting on Graton

Newest casino targeting Bay Area residents promises to share the wealth with workers and people of color

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Placido Lopez, a dealer at Graton and a member of the Graton Rancheria tribe, awaits customers on opening day.
Yael Chanoff

news@sfbg.com

The route to Wine Country was chock-full of gamblers on Nov. 5. They came in cars and limos. And they came on buses, just like hundreds of San Franciscans do every evening, many of them older Asian and Latino immigrants hoping to win big — or at least enjoy a diversion and a few free drinks.

But this day was a little different. It was the grand opening of Graton Resort & Casino, which is closer to San Francisco than the other casinos, both in distance and in its pro-labor progressive values.

Normally, Northern California tribes and even Harrah's in Reno pay private bus companies to bring Bay Area customers to their doors. Graton hasn't contracted these services yet, but the buses came anyway.

"Graton's not paying us," said Rocio Medrano, coordinator at Kenny Express, which planned to send three buses from Mission and 15th streets — where buses to various casinos line up every evening — to the opening. "But we had to go. Everyone was so excited."

FADA Tours, which leaves from Kearny and Sacramento streets, sent six buses, every seat sold out in advance. Xin Jing Service dispatched three buses from downtown Oakland. Walter Wooden, a driver at Xin Jing, gave the same reason for the not-so-chartered bus service as Medrano: "The people want to go."

Graton's counting on it. California's newest casino has steep profit projections, based largely on its proximity to the Bay Area. "Winning Just Got Closer," Graton's homepage screams. Next to the purple slogan, a map shows directions from San Francisco to the casino's Rohnert Park address.

Odds are, most of the estimated 10,000 people who are swarming Graton in its opening days didn't take home much winnings. But for a 1,300-person Native American tribe, and an Oakland-based labor union, winning really just got closer.

 

RARE UNION CASINOS

"Graton is very important," said Marty Bennett, research and policy analyst at UNITE HERE Local 2850. "Now that it's open, our organizing drive will begin soon."

The 2,000-member local represents food service, hotel, and gaming workers, mostly in the East Bay. In a recent campaign, it organized a strike of 180 food service workers at Oakland International Airport. Its only current North Bay location is the Petaluma Sheraton, but Graton is poised to become its newest shop.

The likely unionization of Graton stems from an agreement signed in 2003 by Local 2850 and the tribal chairman who made Graton happen, Greg Sarris. The agreement guarantees card check neutrality, the union's preferred way of organizing.

The other path to unionization is a secret ballot election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). But these elections are generally announced months before their dates, and notoriously offer a window of time for management to harass and intimidate workers.

The difference between card check and secret ballots is "night and day," according to Wei-Ling Huber, president of Local 2850.

"It's not even close. In a secret ballot election that's run by the NLRB, about 50 percent of all organizing drives include termination of organizers," Huber said.

If Graton workers vote to unionize with a card check, it could grow Local 2850's 2,000-person membership by more than 50 percent. Huber said that about 1,200 of Graton's 2,200 workers have jobs that would be represented by UNITE HERE, including bartenders, servers, and cleaning staff.

"It's incredibly exciting," Huber said. "The office is definitely abuzz."

So is the Las Vegas office of Station Casinos. Members of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria own the casino, but Station has the contract to manage it. And it's a lucrative property. Graton is projected to bring in $300 to $400 million in its first year.

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