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Court denies tribal exemption from labor laws

A federal appeals court on Thursday cleared the way for a California tribe's health organization to be subpoenaed for resisting the presence of a labor union.

In a unanimous decision, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a set of subpoenas from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency charged with enforcing labor laws. A three-judge panel said the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) applies to tribal governments even if they aren't specifically mentioned.

"In these circumstances, applying the NLRA does not clearly appear to touch on purely intramural matters that affect the right to [tribal] self-governance," wrote Pamela Ann Rymer for the majority.

The court cautioned that it wasn't ruling that the subpoenas themselves were valid. "We are in no way resolving the issue of the board's jurisdiction," Rymer wrote.

But the court ignored arguments set forth by the Rumsey Indian Rancheria, whose Chapa-De Indian Health Program was ordered by the NLRB to surrender tribal documents and allow its senior management to testify. The tribe pointed to a recent decision in which San Juan Pueblo of New Mexico won a sovereignty challenge to the NLRA.

In that case, the Pueblo's right to work law was upheld by a divided 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. By a 9-1 majority, the court said the ordinance, which prevents forced unionism, was an exercise of self-governance.

"Like states and territories, the Pueblo has a strong interest as a sovereign in regulating economic activity involving its own members within its own territory," wrote Chief Judge Deanell R. Tacha in that case, "and it therefore may enact laws governing such activity."

In rejecting the rancheria's position, the 9th Circuit yesterday drew a distinction. "Pueblo of San Juan is not persuasive because the court there expressly noted that the 'general applicability of federal labor law is not at issue,'" the decision stated.

The 9th Circuit also said the subpoenas don't infringe on tribal sovereignty because most of the Chupa-De's staff and management is non-Indian. The court pointed out that nearly half of the patients are non-Indian.

The case returns to the NLRB, which has to examine whether it indeed has jurisdiction over Chupa-De, whose medical support staff wants to organize with Teamsters Local 228. Some employees allege they were fired for that effort. The appeals court could have pre-empted that analysis had it sided with Chupa-De.

With three clinics in Yolo County, Chapa-De serves nearly 6,000 Indian patients. In addition to the Rumsey Rancheria, the service area includes the United Auburn Community.

Get the Decision:
NAT'L LABOR RELATIONS BD. v. CHAPA DE INDIAN HEALTH PROGRAM, INC., No. 02-15576 (9th Cir. January 16, 2003)

Relevant Links:
Chapa-De Indian Health Program - http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us/YoloLINK/

National Labor Relations Board - http://www.nlrb.gov
National Right to Work Foundation - http://www.nrtw.org
Teamsters Local 228 - http://teamsterslocal228.com
NCAI resolution on labor -

Related Stories:
Tribal labor bill draws complaints (04/18)
Pueblo wins sovereignty case (1/14)

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