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Federal labor ruling draws fire

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Tucson-area tribes among those fighting federal labor ruling

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) – Two local tribes are among those joining others across the nation that are arguing that their casinos and other enterprises shouldn’t have to follow a federal ruling that said unions are allowed to organize at tribal casinos and other businesses.

If the National Labor Relations Board decision stands, the ruling will set a precedent for tribes around the country and for their workers, many of whom are not tribal members.

In southern Arizona, the Tohono O’odham Nation employs more than 1,200 casino workers and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe employs 1,300.

Those tribes and others want Congress to reverse the NLRB decision, which said that as major employers at casinos and other enterprises, tribes are more like businesses than sovereign governments and should be treated as such.

As sovereign nations, tribes contend they should not be under the jurisdiction of the NLRB, which protects private-sector workers’ rights to organize unions, engage in collective bargaining and strike.

“We are a government,” said Herminia Frias, chairman of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, which operates Casino del Sol and Casino of the Sun in Tucson. “The federal labor laws don’t apply to the state or other local municipalities; it should not apply to us.”

Kevin Gover, a professor at Arizona State University’s law school, said that in general, most federal labor laws apply to tribes.

Tribes are subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act – which sets federal minimum wage and overtime standards – and some federal environmental laws, said Gover, who was assistant secretary for Indian Affairs from 1996 to 2001.

Ernest Haffner, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission attorney in Washington, D.C., said that under certain conditions, employees can bring discrimination suits against tribal-operated businesses.

Tribes are exempted from labor laws if those laws violate a treaty provision, Gover said. For example, tribes can have Native-preference laws.

State labor laws do not apply to tribes, Gover said. Tribal governments and courts set their own labor standards.

Gaming officials said both the O’odham and Pascua Yaqui enterprises follow federal labor laws.

The Tohono O’odham Nation, which runs two Desert Diamond casinos, in Tucson and south of the city, and the Golden Ha:san Casino near Why, pays all gaming enterprise employees more than the minimum wage, and the majority are paid much more than the minimum wage, according to a prepared statement.

Pascua Yaqui wages also exceed the federal minimum, said Pilar Thomas, the tribe’s interim attorney general. Employees of the tribe’s casino, convenience store, gas station and tobacco shop also have family leave policies, overtime and 40-hour work weeks, Thomas said.

The tribe pays for workers’ compensation through a private insurance company, she said.