Mashantuckets, UAW to discuss labor contract under tribal law

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. – The Mashantucket Pequot Gaming Authority and the United Auto Workers have agreed to talk about negotiating a union contract under tribal law rather than federal labor law.

The breakthrough announcement came in a brief statement issued jointly by the two parties Oct. 10.

“The UAW and the Mashantucket Pequot Gaming Enterprise agreed to enter into discussions for 30 days to determine if an agreement can be reached to bargain under tribal law without either party waiving any of their rights or legal positions under the National Labor Relations Act,” the statement said.

The parties further agreed that they will not discuss the status of negotiations during the 30-day period.

The jurisdictional dispute over whether tribal laws or the federal National Labor Relations Act of 1935 apply to employees on sovereign tribal land has been waged since last November, when poker dealers at the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation’s Foxwoods Resort Casino voted 1,289 – 852 to join the United Auto Workers union. The federal law is administered by the National Labor Relations Board.

The tribal nation has supported employees’ right to unionize, but says they must do so under tribal labor laws.

“It’s an issue of sovereignty and the rights of Indian tribes, and the federal government’s promises to them of self-government and sovereignty over economic affairs on their sovereign tribal land,” Richard Hankins, an attorney for the nation, told Indian Country Today in a recent interview.

The NLRB certified the union vote in June, but the nation has declined to negotiate a contract, insisting that federal labor laws and the NLRB had no jurisdiction on tribal land.

The union has filed a number of complaints against Foxwoods since the vote was certified, and in August the NLRB issued a complaint alleging that the tribal nation broke the law by refusing to negotiate a contract with the union.

On Oct. 2, the NLRB ordered the nation to bargain with the union. The nation filed an appeal the same day in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York.

The labor conflict at Foxwoods has been watched closely by tribal nations and unions across the country because it will set a precedent for labor relations between tribes and the federal government.

Federal labor laws did not apply on sovereign tribal land for almost 75 years after the federal labor law was passed, but in January 2007 a circuit court’s 2 – 1 panel decision upheld the NLRB’s own earlier ruling that the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in California was subject to federal labor laws.

However, the case involved a narrowly applied definition of the casino as a commercial operation and did not deal with the wider issue of tribal sovereignty or Indian casinos as governmental operations that provide revenue for tribal services – issues that may still be resolved in court if the parties fail to reach agreement in the current talks.

MPTN Chairman Michael Thomas has vowed to fight the jurisdictional issue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal issued a statement following the announcement of talks, stating that he is prepared to fight for federal jurisdiction over labor issues on sovereign land.

“This process has enormous promise in resolving profoundly significant and strongly and wrongly contested rights of workers at Foxwoods. We will continue to fight for union member rights, and welcome these discussions as a means of achieving such rights as quickly and fairly as possible.

“We are prepared to continue the battle in the National Labor Relations Board and the federal courts, where ultimately we should prevail.”