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Tribal Casinos and Labor Law

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Native American tribes are trying to use their sovereign status to avoid U.S. labor law in their casinos:

After the Saginaw Chippewa fired a housekeeper at the Soaring Eagle casino in 2010, the Michigan tribe found itself at the center of a national legal battle over the reach of U.S. labor law and the sovereign rights of Native American tribes.

The housekeeper, Susan Lewis, was fired for soliciting union support among workers at the casino in central Michigan. She challenged her dismissal before the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, which ordered the casino to reinstate Lewis.

The Saginaw Chippewa refused, saying the NLRB, which oversees union elections and referees private-sector labor relations disputes, had no right to meddle in tribal business.

Four years later the tribe is fighting the NLRB in one of three nearly identical court cases whose outcomes could be felt throughout the $28 billion tribal casino industry.

At issue are two long-held legal principles. One is the right of private-sector workers to band together and pursue union representation, as embodied in the 1930s National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which the NLRB oversees.

The other is tribal sovereignty, which has been affirmed by Supreme Court decisions going back to the 1820s.

Tribal law is tremendously complicated and I am no expert. What I do understand suggests that with federal labor law, the tribes might have to comply due to their “domestic dependent nations” status as proclaimed by John Marshall. Were it state law, then they would have a much better case because state sovereignty over indigenous land is less clear. Plus, there is a long history of U.S. labor law already applying to workers on reservations, including OSHA.

But this is just the same kind of capitalist avoidance of basic rights for workers that Vegas casinos or apparel manufacturers or anyone else engages in. And the arguments are equally absurd:

But if the NLRB gets its way and unions move in, potentially raising the Soaring Eagle’s operating costs and eroding its profits, “the impact on the tribe and its governmental services would be, in a word, devastating,” said the tribe in a brief filed with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

The casino is “critical to the political integrity of the tribe,” the brief said. The tribe, which does not tax its members, receives 90 percent of its income from the casino.

Ha ha ha ha, what a funny joke. Or it would be if it wasn’t trying to seriously make this argument. This is the same overheated anti-union rhetoric we’ve heard from Henry Clay Frick, Walmart, and countless others. In many ways, this case is not all that dissimilar on principle from Israel/Palestine. Native Americans’ historical oppression does not give them the right to oppress others.

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