Lawmakers advance Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act in House

Members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce attend the July 22, 2015, markup session. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

Bill exempts tribes and casinos from federal labor law
By Andrew Bahl
Indianz.Com Staff Writer

A bill to exempt tribes and their gaming facilities from federal labor law took another step forward on Wednesday.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed H.R.511, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act, by a voice vote at a short markup session on Capitol Hill. Only three Democrats present -- Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin), Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut) and Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas) -- expressed opposition to a measure that enjoys strong support in Indian Country.

“The bill before us is not about union workers versus nonunion workers, it’s not about big business versus big labor and it’s not about Republican versus Democrat,” Rep. John Kline (R-Minnesota), the chairman of the committee, said in his opening statement. “The bill we are considering today is about whether Native Americans should be free to govern employee-employer relations in a way they determine is best for their workplace.”

The bill, as introduced by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Indiana), exempts tribal businesses from the National Labor Relations Act and prohibits the National Labor Relations Board from asserting jurisdiction at those businesses. It essentially ensures that tribes are treated in the same manner as states and local governments in terms of federal labor law.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Committee on Education and the Workforce H.R. 511, "Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2015"

Rokita offered an amendment in the nature of a substitute to clarify that tribal governments are also exempt from the NLRA. The more expansive language was approved at the markup, which was packed with members of the National Indian Gaming Association who were in Washington, D.C., this week for a legislative summit.

"The Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act will put an end to the board’s overreach and give authority over labor relations back to tribal leaders,” Rokita said. “It’s a bipartisan, commonsense proposal that will provide legal certainty to the Native American community and restore a standard that was in place long before the National Labor Relations Board made the misguided decision to change course."

Democrats at the markup noted that most employees of tribal casinos are non-Indians and argued that the bill will degrade labor standards Indian Country. They also accused Republicans and their allies of using tribal sovereignty as a guise to attack the NLRB.

“It appears to me that this has a lot more to do with the NLRB than it does with sovereignty," Pocan said. "For those of us who have served on this committee for a while, we know there is a Captain Ahab-like obsession with the NLRB."

"It's not like they are great supporters of sovereignty and our tribes," Pocan said of groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that are endorsing the bill. “But they are great supporters of trying to destroy the NLRB.

The Chickasaw Nation owns and operates the WinStar World Casino and Resort, in Thackerville, Oklahoma. Photo from Facebook

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved S.248, its version of the bill, on June 10. Although it hasn't been taken up by the full Senate, the measure has gained traction among lawmakers from both parties.

“I am a strong supporter of labor but sometimes there are fights that you have to fight with your friends and this is one of them,” Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin) said at the NIGA summit on Tuesday. “I don’t understand the confusion.”

Tribes have been seeking an exemption from the NLRA ever since a 2004 ruling in which the NLRB asserted jurisdiction over Indian Country for the first in decades. But efforts to address the issue ran into serious opposition from Democrats and their labor union allies a decade ago.

Since then, tribes have won support from key Democrats by pitching the issue as one of parity with other governments. And with Republicans in control of the House and the Senate, the bill has moved quickly in the 114th Congress.

On a practical note, the bill resolves uncertainties that have arisen in just the past couple of months. In early June, the NLRB declined to assert jurisdiction at a casino owned by the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, citing the tribe's treaty-protected right to self-governance.

Less than a week later, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals backed the NLRB's jurisdiction over a casino owned by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Michigan. Three weeks later, the same court rejected the treaty claims of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, also in Michigan, while expressing serious doubts about the application of the NLRA in Indian Country.

House Committee on Education and the Workforce Documents:
Markup: H.R. 511, "Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2015" (July 22, 2015) | Amendment in the Nature of a Substitute to H.R.511 | Republican Press Release | Democratic Press Release

6th Circuit Decisions:
Soaring Eagle Casino v. NLRB (July 1, 2015)
NLRB v. Little River Band of Ottawa Indians (June 9, 2015)

From the Indianz.Com Archive:
Tribal labor law rider killed by wide margin in House (June 27, 2005)
Federal labor board expands jurisdiction over tribes (June 4, 2004)

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