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Cole: Tribal governments under fire

I wear a number of hats in my professional life: I am the congressman from the 4th District in Oklahoma, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the only enrolled member of a federally recognized Indian tribe in the U.S. Congress. I spend a lot of time with tribal leaders and tribal people, and I am often asked the following question:

“What is the greatest current threat to tribal governmental sovereignty?”

There is no question in my mind what the answer is, and I respond by saying, “In this Congress and the next, tribes face the greatest threat to their sovereign governments that the U.S. Congress has attempted in decades: the so-called Employee Free Choice Act.”

As Americans, we cherish our right to vote in private when it comes to elections. So, too, it seems to me with the individual right to vote in a union election in private – without some goon looking over our shoulder to make sure we vote “the right way.” This is a part of our democracy and ingrained in our collective sense of being Americans. It is also a fundamental component of our basic labor laws for more than 60 years, a personal freedom exercised by millions of American workers.

Yet that personal freedom is exactly what the Democratic Party leaders and their union boss cohorts want to take from American workers. This ill-conceived proposal represents payback for years of unquestioning loyalty by large union bosses – a proposal that strips union members of their right to have secret-ballot elections to choose their leaders.

For Indian tribal governments, there is no “free choice” at all. Instead, it carries with it a very real threat that goes to the core of their sovereignty. For the first time, this legislation will trample the inherent sovereign rights of tribal governments to govern their internal affairs.

In this Congress and the next, tribes face the greatest threat to their sovereign governments that the U.S. Congress has attempted in decades: the so-called Employee Free Choice Act.

The bill will allow and encourage union bosses to use the National Labor Relations Board and federal courts to require Indian tribal governments to make public internal – even confidential – tribal documents. The NLRB, already hostile to the sovereignty of Indian tribes, would be allowed to interview and subpoena tribal employees and, incredibly, could prohibit the tribe from speaking with its own members if they happen to also be employees of that tribe! That doesn’t sound like “free choice” to me.

This threat is very real. As the centerpiece of the Democratic Party’s legislative agenda, this bill was the first major bill pushed by the Democratic Party leaders. Sen.Barack Obama has declared, “We will pass the Employee Free Choice Act. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, we may have to wait for the next president to sign it, but we will get this thing done.” (Chicago Tribune, March 4, 2007). Sen. Joseph Biden, his running mate, stated that the Employee Free Choice Act is a new “social compact.”

United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger said just a couple of days ago that the union would work hard for the election of Democrat Barack Obama for president and push for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. And he is not joking. Unions from around the country, their wallets overflowing with union member dues, have announced that they will spend well over $450 million trying to elect Sen. Obama.

The UAW is no stranger to efforts by Indian tribes to retain their liberty in the face of union mobilization. You see, the UAW is among the unions that are now challenging the sovereignty of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation by forcing it to unionize its casino operations. Indeed, the UAW is now in federal court trying to override the tribe’s own labor laws.

Essentially, what these union bosses are proposing to do is use the hard-earned dollars of tribal employees to undermine the sovereignty of the very tribal governments that employ them.

This threat to tribal sovereignty makes this election of vital importance to Indian tribes across the United States. To me the question is simple: Will the next president eagerly sign a law that strikes at the very heart of tribal sovereignty and ignores tribal aspirations to govern themselves? Or will the next president honor the solemn commitments made by the United States to tribal nations – commitments enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and 200 years of treaties and laws?

Only one candidate has shown the mettle to reject this legislation as part of the successful Senate blockade of that law last year. That same candidate has defended and successfully worked to strengthen tribal sovereignty for more than 26 years.

At the end of the day, I know that this tribal member is voting for that candidate – Sen. John McCain.

Rep. Tom Cole represents Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District and is a member of the Chickasaw Nation.