Skip to main content

Union in NLRB case cuts Connecticut deal

  • Author:
  • Updated:

HARTFORD, Conn. - John W. Wilhelm, leader of the union that prompted the
recent anti-sovereignty ruling from the National Labor Relations Board,
said he would much rather deal with tribal governments after all.

Wilhelm spoke with Indian Country Today after a press conference that made
his point. His union UNITE HERE and the tribal council of the Eastern
Pequot Tribal Nation announced a card check neutrality agreement Sept. 3 in
a well-attended presentation at the state's lavish Legislative Office
Building. The largely symbolic agreements provide that the tribe would
remain neutral during union attempts to organize employees at any casino it
eventually constructed in southeastern Connecticut. In turn the union
acknowledged tribal government sovereignty and promised political support
during the final appeals of its two-year-old federal acknowledgment.

After more than two years of inaction, the Interior Board of Indian Appeals
recently scheduled hearings on state and town government appeals of federal
recognition of the Eastern Pequots, issued June 24, 2002 by then Assistant
Interior Secretary of Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb. The Eastern Pequots have
declined to discuss plans for a casino until their recognition survived the
state challenges.

At the press conference, however, tribal chair Marcia Jones Flowers said
talks with Wilhelm's union had begun two years ago. Formerly called HERE,
the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union merged
July 8 with the UNITE union, itself an amalgamation of several historic
needle-trades unions. Wilhelm is president of the hospitality industry
division. After initially opposing expansion of California's tribal
casinos, HERE has vigorously sought a foothold in the Indian gaming
industry. Wilhelm said that the HERE local in Las Vegas is now the fastest
growing private sector union local in the country.

The location of the press conference, next door to the gold-domed state
Capitol, underscored one potential benefit of the alliance, the union's
influence in labor-friendly state politics. "We need friends," said

The agreements also put a new twist on the crisis in tribal sovereignty
caused by the May 28 NLRB ruling asserting jurisdiction over labor
relations at all tribal commercial enterprises, on- and off-reservation.
Even though the two-to-one ruling brought the NLRB into a dispute between
HERE and the San Manuel Bingo & Casino enterprise in California, Wilhelm
distanced himself from the federal body. He criticized the NLRB for its
extremely slow pace and said his union would much prefer to deal directly
with tribal governments.

Even though the San Manuel decision was prompted by an organizing dispute
between HERE and the Communications Workers of America, Wilhelm said the
case was now out of his union's hands. "Under the labyrinthine procedures
of the NLRB," he said, "it is no longer up to us to pursue the case. The
NLRB will pursue the case."

(In the initial complaint, HERE accused the San Manuel Band of Mission
Indians of favoring the Communications Workers in organizing employees at
its casino.)

Wilhelm did oppose an ongoing bipartisan attempt to "fix" the NLRB ruling
by amending the National Labor Relations Act, the New Deal foundation of
federal labor policy. "We don't think the NLRA should be opening for any
revision at this time when there is so much anti-union sentiment in
Congress," he said.

In announcing the agreement, Flowers emphasized that the tribal council was
exercising its sovereignty. "As a sovereign nation," she said, "we intend
to support every community with which we interact, the community of our
workers, the larger community surrounding us, and our own community made up
of our families and all of Indian country.

"The union's commitment to its diverse work force and their free choice
mirrors our tribe's determination to help its members become
self-sufficient and successful, while at the same time contributing to the
state and our communities. This is a partnership founded on mutual

In one of the tribe's first public discussions of its casino plans, Flowers
said that its construction would create 10,000 jobs. "As the project nears
completion," she said, "we will create a minimum of 4,500 permanent jobs -
good jobs with good benefits."

If the prospective employees accept HERE representation through the card
check process, they would become the first unionized casino employees in
the state. Both Foxwoods Casino Resort, owned by the Mashantucket Pequot
Tribal Nation, and the Mohegan Sun are non-union.

For HERE's part, Wilhelm pledged to help the Eastern Pequots deal with the
unremitting hostility of some of the state's politicians. He said, "We're
committed to do everything we can to support them."

He said he would try to persuade state politicians to drop "a rear-guard
action that's going to lose anyway."

In addition to its prominent role in Las Vegas, HERE has strong roots in
Connecticut. It gained national attention for a series of labor conflicts
at Yale University in New Haven, from which Wilhelm himself graduated in