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National Labor Relations Board, Tribes At Odds Over Unionization on Sovereign Lands

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Can the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) assert authority over businesses owned and operated by tribal governments? Or should the Board recognize the unique sovereign status of Indian tribes to regulate themselves?

That’s the question in several court cases involving the NLRB trying to claim authority over tribal casinos, reported The issue most often comes into play when tribal businesses become the target of union organizers.

On April 16, the NLRB cautioned the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan for prohibiting workers at its Soaring Eagle Casino in Mount Pleasant and Saganing Eagles Landing Casino in Standish from talking about unionizing. In another instance in Michigan, on April 15, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians took a case to court for review of the NLRB decision limiting the tribe’s ability to regulate worker organization and collective bargaining on tribal lands.

"It is well established under the law that an Indian tribe's exercise of inherent authority is protected from infringement by a federal agency or board under color of a federal statute absent a clear directive from Congress," Kaighn Smith, a lawyer for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, wrote in a brief to the NLRB.

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The Chickasaw Nation has yet another case pending before the board.

In an October 2012 op-ed for Indian Country Today Media Network, Fred Wszolek, a spokesperson for the Workforce Fairness Institute, spoke out against the Board separating a tribe’s "commercial enterprises from its governmental functions, ignoring reality and the distinctive nature of tribal governments," he said. "It penalizes tribes for participating in the national economy and achieving the economic self-sufficiency that has always been the goal of Congressional Indian policy."