Debate on Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act moves to House panel

Jefferson Keel, the lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, testifies at hearing on H.R.511, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act, on June 16, 2015. Photo from House Committee on Education and the Workforce / Twitter

Measure supported by tribes gains steam on Capitol Hill
By Andrew Bahl
Indianz.Com Staff Writer

Debate on the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act moved to the House on Tuesday, less than a week after a Senate committee took action on a bill that's gaining momentum on Capitol Hill.

At a packed hearing filled with tribal and union onlookers, the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions took testimony on H.R.511. The bill exempts tribes and their businesses -- including gaming facilities -- from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

“This is as about as clear an issue as I’ve ever seen,” said Rep. David Roe (R-Tennessee), the chairman of the subcommittee. “Either you’re sovereign or you’re not."

"We should clear this up with one small bill and allow [tribes] to make those decisions," Roe added.

Jefferson Keel, the lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, emphasized the sovereignty aspect of the debate. He said it was wrong for the federal government to force tribes to adhere to labor standards developed by someone else.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Hearing on H.R. 511, Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2015

“We submit that the administrative imposition of a private labor model on any government, including a tribal government, is incompatible with the very nature of sovereignty and self-government,” Keel testified. “All governments are entitled to equal respect under the law, precisely as Congress in 1935 intended.”

As one example, Keel noted that the NLRA recognizes the right of employees to strike. A strike at a tribal gaming facility would be “crippling," said Keel, who likened the situation to a 1981 strike by air traffic controllers that was deemed illegal by then-president Ronald Reagan.

“It crippled transportation in this country,” Keel said of that strike. “We obviously aren’t on that type of scale but that is the type of activity that would limit what we can do. We could not stand for that.”

The Chickasaw Nation already was the target of an unfair labor practices complaint at its WinStar World Casino and Resort in Thackerville. After a lengthy administrative proceeding, as well as litigation in federal court, the National Labor Relations Board declined to assert jurisdiction at the facility, saying it would interfere with the tribe's treaty-protected right to self-governance. The union in the dispute has stated it will not pursue an appeal.

The WinStar World Casino and Resort, in Thackerville, Oklahoma. Photo from Facebook

Still, the outcome runs counter to a 2004 ruling in which the NLRB asserted jurisdiction in Indian County for the first time in decades. It also conflicts with a decision from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that supported the board's intervention at a casino owned by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Michigan.

The uncertainty would be resolved by the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act but critics of the bill, including Democratic lawmakers and unions operating at tribal casinos, argue it would lead to a degradation of worker’s rights. They also claim it could lead to attempts by tribes to shield themselves from other laws, like the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

“If you really want parity, shouldn’t we be addressing all these issues?” asked Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin). “Or are you just going after labor unions? You’re picking and choosing that this is the one law you want to fix.”

Gary Navarro, the sole labor representative on the witness list, works as a slot machine attendant at the Graton Casino Resort on the Graton Rancheria in California. He said federal labor law is crucial for unions in Indian Country because workers would otherwise lack rights provided to other Americans.

“Take away our NLRA rights and we are like people in countries with most repressive dictatorships,” Navarro, a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of California, told lawmakers.

Navarro’s testimony drew a rebuke from Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. She called his remarks “profoundly disturbing” and “an insult to Indian Country that has no place in a policy debate.”

“Congress must continue to work to ensure that tribal sovereignty and self-governance are respected and strengthen to the benefit of our Native American brothers and sisters,” McCollum said in a statement.

McCollum, though, is not a sponsor of H.R.511, which was introduced by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Indiana) in January. Of the 48 co-sponsors, only two are Democrats.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved S.248 at a business meeting last Wednesday. The bill, introduced by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) in January, has no Democratic co-sponsors.

Tribes have long been calling on Congress to treat their enterprises the same as those operated by state and local governments. But efforts to address the 2004 NLRB ruling suffered a major setback at the hands of Democrats in 2005 and the issue hasn't been taking seriously until now, with the House and Senate in Republican control.

S.248 has not come up for consideration in the Senate. The next step for H.R.511 would be a markup by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Committee Notice:
H.R. 511, Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2015 (June 16, 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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