Appropriations bill blocks federal labor law at tribal businesses

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma). Photo from Flickr

Fueled by Republican interest on Capitol Hill, efforts to shield tribal casinos from federal labor law are taking another step forward this week.

An appropriations bill due for a markup on Wednesday bars the National Labor Relations Board from asserting jurisdiction in Indian Country. The rider is the work of Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and one of only two members of a federally-recognized tribe in Congress.

Cole's tribe recently prevailed in an unfair labor practices complaint in which the NLRB declined to assert jurisdiction over the WinStar World Casino and Resort in Thackerville, Okahoma. He didn't mention the development when he released his funding bill, instead describing his rider as an attempt to "rein in the excessive overreach" of that federal agency.

But the language in Section 409 is quite clear. It prohibits the NLRB from using any federal funds to enforce the National Labor Relations Act "against any Indian tribe, including any enterprise or institution owned and operated by an Indian tribe and located on its Indian lands."

"This bill reflects the values and priorities of the American taxpayer, setting us on a path that will reduce the deficit while funding programs that make meaningful differences in the lives of Americans," Cole, who serves as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, said in a press release.

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

Cole isn't the only Republican taking up the cause, either. The GOP-controlled Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved S.248, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act, a bill that shields tribes from the NLRA, at a business meeting on June 10.

Less than a week later, the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions took testimony on H.R.511, the House version of the bill. During the hearing, Republican lawmakers repeatedly characterized the NLRB's efforts as an affront to tribal self-determination.

“This is as about as clear an issue as I’ve ever seen,” Rep. David Roe (R-Tennessee), the chairman of the subcommittee, said on June 16. “Either you’re sovereign or you’re not."

The shift on Capitol Hill represents more than a decade of work by tribes on the issue. They have been asking Congress to take action since an unprecedented 2004 ruling opened their casinos and other enterprises to federal labor law.

But the last time they pushed Congress to make a move resulted in an embarrassing defeat. Pro-union Democrats killed an appropriations rider by a wide margin in 2005.

Democrats are still speaking out against the new efforts though not as loudly as before. At the June 10 business meeting, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) was the only Democrat present who objected to S.248.

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

Tester, however, has not signed on as a co-sponsor of S.248, nor have any other Senate Democrats. Over in the House, only two Democrats are co-sponsoring H.R.511.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, isn't one of those Democrats. But UNITE Here, the union that was behind the 2004 NLRB case, said it would no longer support her because she criticized the testimony given by one of the union's members at the June 16 hearing in the House.

Even though McCollum isn't sponsoring the bill, tribal advocates are defending her from the union's attack. The National Indian Gaming Association and the National Congress of American Indians sent out a joint letter on Friday describing her as a "champion of Indian Country."

"Representative McCollum has never wavered in her support of the hard working union members in her district, just as she has never wavered in her support of tribal sovereignty," NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens and NCAI President Brian Cladoosby said in the joint letter. "NCAI and NIGA have come together to ask the tribal nations of our respective organizations to never waver in their support of Representative McCollum and the many other members who are supporting fairness for tribal governments."

The markup on Cole's appropriations bill takes place at 10:15am in Room 2359 of the Rayburn House Office Building. It will be webcast.

The full text of the Cole's rider follows:
SEC. 409. (a) None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to enforce the National Labor Relations Act (29 U.S.C. 152) against any Indian tribe, including any enterprise or institution owned and operated by an Indian tribe and located on its Indian lands.
(b) For purposes of this section—
(1) the term ‘‘Indian tribe’’ means any Indian
tribe, band, nation, pueblo, Native Alaskan group, or other organized group or community which is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians;
(2) the term ‘‘Indian’’ means any individual who is a member of an Indian tribe; and
(3) the term ‘‘Indian lands’ ’’ means—
(A) all lands within the limits of any Indian reservation;
(B) any lands title to which is either held in trust by the United States for the benefit of any Indian tribe or individual or held by any Indian tribe or individual subject to restriction by the United States against alienation; and
(C) any lands in the State of Oklahoma that are within the boundaries of a former reservation (as defined by the Secretary of the Interior) of a federally recognized Indian tribe.

Committee Notice:
Full Committee Markup - FY 2016 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Bill (June 24, 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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