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Partisan fight looms over tribal labor law rider

The normally bipartisan Congressional Native American Caucus is gearing up for a major fight as Republicans and Democrats trade barbs over a tribal labor union measure.

Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Arizona), the Republican co-chair of the caucus, plans to introduce an appropriations rider that would put a controversial labor law decision on hold for a year. He says the measure is necessary in order to craft a permanent solution that would protect tribes from incursions on their sovereignty by labor unions.

"Delaying enforcement for one year is the most we can do at this point and is the best option for tribes," Hayworth wrote in a "Dear Colleague" letter distributed to members of the House this month.

But Democrat members of the caucus, which is typically unified on tribal matters, are crying foul. After defeating Hayworth when he brought forth a similar measure last year, they say he is again trying to "force a wedge" between tribes and labor unions, one of their strongest constituencies.

"All it will do is drag the process out one year longer -- keeping Indian tribes, tribal workers, and labor unions from knowing how to proceed," Rep. George Miller (D-California) and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia), the top Democrat on the House Resources Committee, said in their own "Dear Colleague" letter.

The war of words sets the stage for a repeat of a bitter fight that emerged on the House floor last September, when the Native caucus alliance broke down over Hayworth's labor measure. Democrats who would normally vote with tribes jumped ship and defeated the rider, which they said was anti-union.

Tribes found themselves in what National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall called a "rock and a hard place." NCAI, along with the National Indian Gaming Association, threw support behind Hayworth -- much to the chagrin of Democrats, who openly questioned the tribal stance.

Wary of another defeat, tribal leaders and their advocates are quietly debating whether they should take a stand or stay out of the debate. Some are adamantly opposed to the Hayworth rider for fear of losing support from some of their strongest Democrat supporters. NIGA held a conference call yesterday to discuss the dilemma.

At issue is a highly contentious National Labor Relations Board decision from May 2004. Overruling 30 years of precedent, the board concluded that tribal governments and their enterprises are subject to federal labor law.

The National Labor Relations Act doesn't mention tribes at all. But the NLRB, in the 3-1 decision, said tribes opened themselves to the law by employing non-Indians and affecting non-Indians.

"As tribal businesses prosper, they become significant employers of non-Indians and serious competitors with non-Indian owned businesses," the board stated. "When Indian tribes participate in the national economy in commercial enterprises, when they employ substantial numbers of non-Indians, and when their businesses cater to non-Indian clients and customers, the tribes affect interstate commerce in a significant way."

The board was split along party lines as well. Its chairman, Republican Robert J. Battista, signed onto the majority decision with two Democrats, but a Republican former federal prosecutor filed a strongly worded dissent.

Equally strong sentiments are being voiced by Hayworth and his Democrat critics. He said Miller and Rahall have done nothing to address tribal concerns with the decision.

"They held sham negotiations with tribes that already had unions on their reservations and even those negotiations ended after one meeting when the tribes realized they had a loaded gun pointed to their head," Hayworth wrote.

Miller and Rahall took issue with suggestions that they are bowing to powerful labor union leads. "We will put our record of support for Indian tribes up against anyone's in this House; a support and respect that goes way back before the first Indian casino was built," they said.

The Hayworth amendment is due to be introduced to the 2006 Labor/Health and Human Services/Education appropriations bill. The House resumed debate on the measure this morning.

Separately, Hayworth has introduced H.R.16, a bill that would permanently exempt tribes from labor law. The measure has 11 co-sponsors although all but one are Republicans.

As for the NLRB decision, the case has not been fully adjudicated. The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, the tribe involved, is resisting efforts by a labor union to organize casino employees. The tribe could take the case to federal court once a final administrative decision is made.

Appropriations Bill:
Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (H.R.3010)

National Labor Relations Board Decisions:
San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino | Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation

Relevant Links:
National Labor Relations Board -