Key Democrat defends support for Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) speaks at the National Congress of American Indians annual conference in San Diego, California, on October 19, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com

A key Democrat expressed strong support for the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act on Monday despite criticism from a union that she accused of being anti-Indian.

During a speech at the National Congress of American Indians annual convention, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) reiterated her intention to vote for H.R.511 if it comes to the House floor. She said the measure puts tribes on the same level as states and local governments when it comes to federal labor law.

“I am very proud of my record of standing up for the rights of workers and I have expectations that tribal governments will also respect workers' rights," McCollum told tribal leaders at NCAI's meeting in San Diego, California. "But I have expectations that labor unions should respect the rights of tribal sovereign nations but unfortunately that is not the case."

The UNITE Here union, which boasts more than 265,000 active members, launched a website and ran radio ads that criticized McCollum for her stance. The $10,000 effort insinuated that tribes were buying influence with campaign donations.

As the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus and the top Democrat on the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee that controls tribal funding, McCollum has made no secret of her ties to Indian Country. Her speech on Monday in fact was preceded by a fundraiser at the Town in Country Resort, the site of NCAI's meeting, on Sunday evening.

The Saginaw Chippewa Tribe owns and operates the Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. Photo from Facebook

But McCollum said the union's campaign was misleading. She drew strong applause and a standing ovation after stating she would continue to support tribal priorities in the 114th Congress.

"It was arrogant, it was racist and it was blatantly anti-Indian," McCollum said of UNITE Here's campaign.

H.R.511 has drawn the support of Republicans but is not yet scheduled for a vote in the House. Jackie Pata, the executive director of NCAI, said tribes will be lobbying for action in the "upcoming weeks" despite the politically sensitive atmosphere.

"The legislation is opposed by labor unions which makes it very difficult for some of our most friendly Democrats in Congress to commit," Pata said yesterday.

Separately, tribes continue to monitor litigation that would be addressed by passage of the measure. In two recent decisions, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ability of the National Labor Relations Board to assert jurisdiction over tribal gaming facilities.

A view of the Little River Casino Resort in Manistee, Michigan. Photo from Facebook

Despite the muddled nature of the outcome -- four of the six judges that heard the cases expressed serious doubts about the NLRB's authority -- the 6th Circuit has refused to put the issue to an larger, en banc panel of judges. The court denied a petition filed by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians on September 24 and another filed by the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe on September 29.

However, on September 29, the 6th Circuit put a stay on the Little River Band decision in order for the tribe to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But tribal advocates are not certain that the effort will result in success.

"Whether the Supreme Court will take these cases is a good question so it really puts more focus on the legislative fix," John Dossett, NCAI's general counsel, said at the conference.

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