Workers Struggle For Justice In Minnesota Indian Gaming Industry

Submitted by Pancho Valdez, a veteran civil rights, labor and peace activist of more than 45 years. He can be reached at: 210-422-8000 or at:

“Before our white brothers arrived to make us civilized men, we didn’t have any kind of prison. Because of this we had no delinquents. Without a prison, there can be no delinquents. We had no locks, nor keys and therefore among us there were no thieves. When someone was so poor that he couldn’t afford a horse, a tent or a blanket, he, in that case receive all as a gift. We were too uncivilized to give great importance to private property. We didn’t know any kind of money and consequently, the value of a human being was not determined by his wealth. We had no written laws laid down, no lawyers, no politicians, therefore we were not able to cheat and swindle one another. We were really in bad shape before the white man arrived and I don’t know how to explain how we were able to manage these fundamental things that (so they tell us) are so necessary for a civilized society.” -John (Fire) Lame Deer, Sioux Lakota 1903-1976

The history of the American Indian Gaming Industry goes back over 20 years as a “means of addressing” poverty, alcoholism, massive unemployment, poor educational opportunities, poor housing, lack of health care services, all very prevalent social problems on the reservations where many Native American people continue to reside.

While the intent may have been good, the reality is that the casinos where over 20,000 Native Americans work in the state of Minnesota have proved to be a band-aid for the aforementioned problems and in of themselves, another social problem for members of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Lower Sioux Community, Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, Shakopee Ndewakanton Sioux Community, Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa, Prairie Island Indian Community (Sioux), Upper Sioux Community, White Earth Band of Chippewa, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. The different bands and tribes are “owners” of the casinos and have formed their own trade association called the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association (MIGA).

According to Alan Maki, Director of Organizing for the Midwest Casino Workers Organizing Council, about 65 percent of  these casino workers are women, half are people of color of whom about 7,000 are Native American, and most are under the age of 35. They  earn an average annual income of around $10,500, hardly a living wage in today’s economy.

According to Maki, the workers are exposed to high amounts of noise and cigarette smoke because the casinos are exempt from regulation by any municipal, state or federal enforcement agencies including OSHA, EEOC, NLRB and the U.S. Department of Labor. Because these gaming facilities are on Indian reservations, federal laws grant them sovereignty from all regulatory enforcement agencies except law enforcement. (Minnesota is one of a few states where Minnesota law enforcement has jurisdiction on the Indian reservation.)

Upon applying for and accepting casino jobs, workers must sign a pledge that states they will not join a union and if they do, they are subject to being fired for such. Maki said that casinos often pay workers less than minimum wage, deny them overtime pay  for work performed over 40 hours, and are not subject to other labor laws and regulations that protect other American workers.

Rank and file casino workers began organizing their own union in 2000 as unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO refused to assist them. Maki attributes this reluctance to organize the Native American casino workers to three things: 1) the workers are not covered by existing labor relations agencies, 2) The Minnesota Indian Gaming Association contributes money to the Minnesota Democratic Farm-Labor Party (the name of the Democratic Party in Minnesota also known as DFL), which has very close relations with organized labor in Minnesota, and the AFL-CIO will not do anything to “offend” the DFL. 3) Racism toward the Native American peoples from both the DFL, the AFL-CIO, organized crime, and John McCarthy, the MIGA executive director.

According to Maki, the Teamsters and AFT pension funds are among the largest investors in Indian Gaming operations. The Building & Construction Trades have a “sweetheart agreement” with the Indian Gaming Association to hire union labor for construction projects; however the workers do not enjoy the protection of a union contract or Project Management Agreement.

Again neither state or federal building, health and safety inspectors are permitted onto the job sites and Affirmative Action is not enforced. Aside from low wages and the lack of on the job democracy, casino workers in MIGA sanctioned facilities are subjected to high exposure of smoke from patrons smoking cigars, cigarettes and pipes. The former head of Indian Health Services under President Bush described casino operations “the modern-day equivalent to small pox laden blankets!”

Maki went on further to say that neither the American Cancer Society, the American Heart or American Lung Associations raise any fuss on these deplorable working conditions as all three receive contributions from the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association.

The Minnesota Indian Gaming Association has developed strong ties to politicians of both the Minnesota Republican and Minnesota Democratic Farm-Labor Party, which make obtaining justice for the over 40,000 casino workers almost an impossible task.

The irony of MIGA is that while it appears to be “Indian owned and Indian controlled” the reality is the opposite. John McCarthy, a white man, is the executive director of MIGA. McCarthy is also the owner of Tony Doom Supply Company an enterprise that produces political campaign materials like yard signs, buttons, etc. The company also sells business forms, office machines and furniture, and produces promotion materials for businesses such as coffee mugs, clothing, caps.

While the Native Americans own the casinos and the debts that are incurred, the mob owns the slot machines and table games through what Maki describes as “a complex maze of franchises.” The mob takes in anywhere from 30 percent to 80 percent of everything that goes into the slot machines and table games.

Maki traces the ownership of the slot machines and table games back to an Alvin Malnik from Florida who inherited the “family business” from gangster Meyer Lansky who used to own casinos in Cuba prior to the revolution in 1959. According to Maki, the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) works with the mob through the slot machines and table games as well as contracting with a mob-connected family to “manage” some of the casinos.

According to the website of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association funds from the casinos are divided up as follows: 28 percent for healthcare, 22 percent for government operations (no specifics), 20 percent for education, 13 percent for housing/economic development, 10 percent for human services, and 7 percent for infrastructure.

Despite the fact that the casinos have been in operation since the late 1980s, Native American peoples in Minnesota continue to live in extreme poverty, reside in sub-standard housing, receive inadequate healthcare services and have less than adequate education for their children.

According to a Harvard University study in 2005, living conditions “improved” more for gaming tribes than non-gaming tribes in the years 1990-2000. Unfortunately no one knows exactly how much of the revenue is going into the reservations as tribal leaders refuse to divulge this information even to members of the tribes.

The Red Lake Tribal Council insisted that the Red Lake Gaming Enterprises be audited by a reputable auditing firm, Touche and Anderson. When auditors arrived to conduct the audit they were denied access to the information by the Chief Financial Officer. According to Alan Maki records for three casinos, a hotel, a motel, two restaurants and an indoor water park were kept in shoe boxes at the home of the Chief Financial Officer!

This is a major factor why Meyer Lansky began the Indian Gaming Industry as he knew that no municipal, state or federal agency could hold the casino owners accountable for the financial records of the gaming businesses.

The Minnesota Indian Gaming Industry’s website also posted the following unmet needs that the tribes in Minnesota face on a daily basis: 1) Native American life expectancy is 2.4 years shorter than other Americans, 2) Native Americans are three times more likely to die from diabetes related complications, 3) Native Americans are six times more likely to die of alcohol related causes, 4) Native Americans are five times more likely to die of tuberculosis, 5) Native Americans are five times more likely to be victims of homicide, 6) Native American adults are twice as likely to commit suicide, 7) Native Americans under 18 years of age are three times likely to commit suicide, 8) Native American infants are twice as likely to die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), 9) Native Americans are three times likely to die from motor vehicle accidents.

Clearly the situation of indigenous people in the state of Minnesota is neither acceptable or just. One can only imagine that similar or worse conditions exist in other states including Texas where the Kickappoo and Alabama-Coushatta tribes own and operate casinos. (According to the web, the state of Texas successfully sued and shut down the Alabama-Coushatta casino).

For Minnesota, Alan Maki has assisted in organizing the casino workers into a democratic union of their own choosing. He said that when casino management was prepared to recognize the Midwest Casino Workers Organizing Council, the AFL-CIO stepped in and offered the bosses a “better deal. “This offer is clearly a violation of the workers’ right to self determination as well as highly unethical, Maki said. “Only through a union of their choosing will the wages and working conditions improve.”

Workers employed at Indian Gaming enterprises deserve to have the same protection as other American workers. While sovereignty of the Indian nations should be respected and continued, sovereignty should not be an excuse to exploit and oppress workers. With improvement in the wages the conditions on the reservations will also improve.

Maki has also advocated for a joint venture between the state of Minnesota and the Indian Tribes that would entail a slot machine manufacturing plant that would employ around 2,000 Native Americans in good paying jobs and also be instrumental in ridding the Minnesota Indian gaming industry of the organized crime element. With the absence of the mob, all proceeds would go directly into benefiting the various tribes to improve the delivery of health and human services, schools and economic development on the reservations. However along with the mob the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party and the Minnesota AFL-CIO remain the chief opponents of such a joint venture.

Maki also went on to mention that some (not all) of the tribal governments have been corrupted and are not interested in making working conditions and pay better for the casino workers. Unfortunately they have learned that for them as individuals, capitalism is a good thing and the situations of the other members of the tribes are of no consequence to them.

Corruption of local tribal governments along with corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs is common and a festering issue amongst various indigenous tribes not only in Minnesota, but across the nation!

Other solutions would entail for the federal government to improve upon funding for the Indian Health Services program as under funding has resulted in less than adequate healthcare for the workers and their families. Maki mentioned that the health benefits offered by the casinos is not that good and in fact many physicians and dentists in the northern part of Minnesota will not accept the casino health plan due to slow processing of payments.

For the 41,700 gaming industry workers the situation is clearly grave and depending on those entities created to address the issues is near hopeless! By getting the word out it is this author’s sincere hope that the wheels of justice will begin turning in favor of the workers, their families and their communities. Anyone wishing to learn more about this situation can contact Alan Maki, Director of Organizing, Midwest Casino Workers Organizing Council:


4 thoughts on “Workers Struggle For Justice In Minnesota Indian Gaming Industry

  1. Alan Maki has a long tenured personal beef with John McCarthy, and he attacks his character at any chance he gets. The numbers he provides here are inaccurate enough that if this were a post in MSM, a lawsuit for defamation would be assured. In the case of a blog, the odds decrease, but I doubt they are gone. There is a reason Maki is not quoted anywhere legitimate on this issue. It is because he is known to be loose with facts and driven by personal animosity for McCarthy.

    I’m truly sorry you were duped by him.

  2. The underside of casinos as “economic development” for Native Americans. Political corruption, organized crime involvement, profits going to outside capitalists, failure of AFL-CIO to support workers self-organizing. “While sovereignty of the Indian nations should be respected and continued, sovereignty should not be an excuse to exploit and oppress workers.” Thanks to Pancho for a terrific article.
    Pancho also notes that “the Frank Fertitta family . . . siphons off 85% of the profits from the Gun Lake Casino in neighboring Michigan!”
    These are issues I’ve been wondering about for years as I’ve seen casinos become ubiquitous when I’ve driven in Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. I’ve thought what a sad thing it is to have to make money off of gambling instead of production of something useful. But I know Native Americans have had to seize on whatever they can to improve the oppressive socio-economic position that’s been forced on them.

  3. Considering the fact that you fail to identify yourself, I feel that you are the one attempting to dupe me. I know Alan and he is as honest a trade unionist that I have ever me.
    You on the other hand are faceless, and in effect a coward! I stand by my article. You wish to sue me? GO FOR IT!

  4. the question now is tim pawlentty and the evanjellicals worse to native amaricans that the original settlers there is no disputing the argument however my grandfather is a war vet and i haven’t ever heard him say a Prejudges term. just saying there is lots of good out there two!
    i didn’t follow every thing but the inhumanity and insanity has to stop

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