Betting on Graton - Page 2

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

Station spokesperson Lori Nelson told us by email the company is "excited to welcome residents from the Bay Area as we invite them all out to check out the newest entertainment destination created just for them."

Nelson emphasized that Graton is targeting Bay Area customers.

"In fact, our advertising campaign that's been on the air and on billboards the past few weeks even reads 'From Bay to Play in 43 Minutes,'" Nelson wrote.

That "43 minutes" can be more like a couple hours on traffic congested days such as opening day. But increased congestion aside, Graton's location 50 miles from San Francisco is a jackpot for Station. It was also key to the leverage Sarris had when he hired Station to manage Graton, using that leverage to require a worker-friendly operation.

When Sarris was looking to hire a management company, he invited representatives from the many interested firms to his living room, pitting them against each other.

"I did create what I like to call a cock fight," Sarris tells us.

Sarris' conditions were audacious. He wanted full tribal control of the development board, a LEED-certified green building, and $200 million upfront. But the condition that made most companies back down, he said, was his demand for living wages and benefits right off the bat, and the option for workers to unionize once the casino opened.

"The union thing was a deal breaker for everyone else. Station even had a problem with it," Sarris said. "But it was my way or the highway on that one."

 

RIPPLE EFFECT?

In Las Vegas, Culinary Union Local 226 — a UNITE HERE affiliate — has been waging a campaign against Station since 2010. Its website devoted to Station workers' struggle includes a list of 88 instances of alleged unfair labor practices committed by Station and calls the company called "rabidly anti-union."

But in Rohnert Park, UNITE HERE and Station have been working together.

"We're optimistic that our relationship here can be very different," said Huber. "I think that the tribe has had a really positive influence on bringing us together in California in a way that is not the case in Las Vegas."

At Sarris' urging, the casino was built with 100 percent union labor. It created about 700 jobs. And Jack Buckhorn, president of the North Bay Labor Council, said that 75 percent of people hired to build Graton were Sonoma County residents.

"These were long-term jobs. It really helped out as we're recovering from this great recession," Buckhorn said. "These were all really good jobs."

That 75 percent local hire rate is impressive compared to some construction projects with similar price tags in San Francisco. After neighborhood activism, the $1.5 billion UCSF Mission Bay Hospital has maintained a rate of 20 percent local hire. And the Golden State Warriors have been praised for its promise of 25 percent local hire for construction of its proposed arena on Piers 30-32.

Sarris says that his commitment to good working conditions at Graton is rooted in history.

"I believe in dignity in the workplace," Sarris said. "Let's not forget the way we labored in kitchens and fields with low wages and no benefits."

Workers' rights are just one part of the vision Graton's tribal council has for the casino, which also includes a bevy of social programs, more than $25 million annually for parks and open spaces in Sonoma County, and an organic farm.

"We see Graton as a means to an end," said Joanne Campbell, a 12-year tribal council member.

With Graton's opening, Sarris isn't just the leader of a tribe that's about to get rich. He has influence in Sonoma County, and he says he intends to use it to fight injustice.

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