Senate committee passes bill to shield tribal casinos from NLRB

Labor union supporters turned out in large numbers at the Senate Indian Affairs Committee business meeting. Photo by Andrew Bahl / Twitter

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved S.248, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act, by a voice vote on Wednesday afternoon as union members gathered in protest.

The bill shields tribes and their casinos from the National Labor Relations Act. Supporters argue that it merely treats tribes in the same manner as states and local governments.

“Tribal governments deserve and, in fact, are entitled by law to have parity alongside other governments,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), the sponsor of a bill that enjoys broad support in Indian Country.

The roughly 60 hotel and restaurant workers who showed up to the committee's business meeting believe otherwise. They represented UNITE Here, the union that was behind the 2004 case in which the National Labor Relations Board asserted jurisdiction over Indian Country for the first time in nearly 70 years.

“I have spent my entire adult life advocating for those who work hard and come to America seeking the American Dream -- freedom and the opportunity to provide,” Maria Elena Durazo, the union's general vice president of immigration, civil rights and diversity, said in a press release. “This bill is a fundraiser, masked with the phony embrace of respect for tribal sovereignty. We won’t stand by as the Senate sells out all-American rights.”

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Indian Affairs Committee Business Meeting

The union's presence, though, did not appear to have much of an effect on the Republican-led committee. When the bill came up for the voice vote, only Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) was heard objecting to its passage.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the committee, did not record an audible "yes" or "no" vote. At the April 29 hearing on the bill, he indicated that he supported it.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee, hailed action on the measure. He promised to work toward final passage in the Senate.

“Today, the committee passed important legislation that will empower tribes and respect them as sovereign governments,” Barrasso said in a press release after the meeting. “Tribal sovereignty allows Indian tribes to govern themselves, regulate tribal businesses, and provide essential services to tribal members. We’ll continue to move forward with this bill and work to bring it to the Senate floor for a final vote.”"

With the help of Republicans, tribes have tried to advance similar measures in prior sessions of Congress. But after a major defeat in 2005 at the hands of Democrats, the issue hasn't been taken seriously again until now.

Still, the only sponsors of S.248 are Republicans. The same goes for H.R.511, the version introduced in the House. That bill has not yet received a hearing.

The NLRB has not taken a position for or against the measure -- standard policy for the agency. But the 2004 ruling that sparked the debate has since been used repeatedly to assert jurisdiction over tribal casinos.

The lone exception came last week when the board declined to intervene in an unfair labor practices complaint at a casino owned by the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. Asserting jurisdiction at the WinStar World Casino and Resort conflicts with the tribe's treaty right to self-governance, the NLRB said.

But earlier this week, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the NLRB in a union complaint affecting the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Michigan. The 2-1 decision, along with the Chickasaw Nation ruling, were brought up by Moran at today's meeting.

"So we have the circumstances of two potential inequalities: whether one sovereign entity is treated differently than another sovereign entity and whether a particular tribe is treated differently than another tribe," Moran said.

Committee Notices:
Business Meeting to consider S. 248 (June 10, 2015)
Legislative Hearing on S. 248, the "Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2015" (April 29, 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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