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Appeals court rules tribes are subject to federal labor law

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By Erica Werner -- Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - American Indian tribes are subject to federal labor law, an appeals court ruled Feb. 9, in a case that could lead to stricter labor protections and more unions at the nation's booming Indian-owned casinos.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected arguments from a wealthy southern California tribe that as a sovereign government, it should not be subject to those laws.

In the late 18th and the 19th centuries, as the United States expanded westward, the U.S. government signed treaties with many tribes on lands being taken over. They identify the signatories as sovereign nations, but courts have chipped away at the sovereignty over the decades.

''Tribal sovereignty is not absolute autonomy, permitting a tribe to operate in a commercial capacity without legal constraint,'' said the opinion written by Judge Janice Rogers Brown.

The ruling stemmed from an organizing dispute at a casino run by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, where a union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board arguing that another union was getting preferential access.

San Manuel contested the complaint by asserting the labor board lacked jurisdiction because of the federal sovereignty recognition.

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The labor board disagreed in a 2004 opinion that, for the first time, said tribes are covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which bars unfair labor practices and gives workers the right to organize and bargain with employers.

At stake are protections and bargaining rights for some 250,000 workers, mostly non-Indians, at the nation's 400-plus tribal casinos. Tribal gaming has exploded into a $22 billion per year industry - richer than the gaming mecca Las Vegas - with Indian casinos in 28 states.

A few tribal casinos in California are unionized, including San Manuel, but most workers at Indian casinos are nonunion. Unions have been trying hard to make inroads with the growing work force but say they've had trouble without the protection of the National Labor Relations Act.

Even though San Manuel employees already have joined Communications Workers of America, the ruling could undercut the tribe's ability to deal with the union on the tribe's own terms, which critics say favor the tribe. The tribe contends it treats its workers well, and employees at the San Manuel casino have praised conditions there.

''We are disappointed by the ruling today,'' said Henry Duro, chairman of the San Manuel tribe, which was backed in the case by the National Indian Gaming Association and leading tribes.

''We believe that these gaming projects help tribes to fulfill essential governmental functions by providing education, health care, housing, senior care and other key programs,'' Duro said. ''Those are basic governmental obligations that could be impacted by this decision.''

A tribal spokesman said the tribe had not decided whether to appeal.