Unions compete for workers at Foxwoods

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MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - While the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation continues to assert that tribal labor law applies on tribal land, two unions are now competing with each other to organize employees at Foxwoods Resort Casino under federal law, and four unionization petitions under federal law are pending.

The United Auto Workers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are both trying to organize technicians at Foxwoods.

The UAW filed a petition with the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board in Hartford April 14 to unionize slot technicians, electronic bench technicians, field service technicians and senior field service technicians.

The IBEW filed its petition a week earlier. Both unions said their organizing efforts are supported by at least 30 percent of employees in the potential bargaining unit.

The UAW petition included employees at MGM Grand at Foxwoods, which is scheduled to open May 17.

Both unions belong to the AFL-CIO, a federation of 56 national and international labor unions. It is not clear how - or when - their competing interests in organizing the Foxwoods employees will be resolved.

The UAW filed another petition April 15 to unionize racebook writers and dual-rate racebook writers in the casino;s off-track betting area.

And in March, the International Union of Operating Engineers filed a petition to organize 262 physical plant workers - electricians, plumbers, power plant operators, sheet metal mechanics and others who maintain the casino facility.

An election date for plant workers has been scheduled for May 1.

So far, five petitions to unionize Foxwoods employees have been filed.

The first UAW petition was filed last year and resulted in an election in which poker dealers voted 1,289 - 852 to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act rather than tribal labor law.

At the end of March, the nation filed an appeal with the NLRB in Washington of an administrative law judge's decision to certify the UAW election.

While the appeal deals with some procedural issues, the nation's overarching argument is that tribal nations as sovereign entities with a government-to-government relationship with the federal government are not subject to federal laws, known as ''laws of general applicability,'' such as the NLRA.

MPTN enacted tribal labor laws last year that are modeled on state governmental laws and provide the same rights to organize unions, bargain collectively and seek arbitration - and the same prohibition against striking, said Jackson King, the nation's general counsel.

''If you cut off the revenue from the casino, it's just a matter of time before the government shuts down. We won't have the money to meet the payrolls of police, firemen and other employees. That's one of the reason the NLRA does not apply to states - teachers, firemen, policemen cannot strike. The tribal laws are pretty much the same as state laws. They can do anything but strike.''

MPTN vowed to take the labor jurisdictional issue to the highest court.

The NLRA was passed in 1935, a year after the Indian Reorganization Act. Even though it did not include tribal nations with state and local governments as exempt, the law was not applied to tribes for decades.

But then a dispute between two unions at a casino owned by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in California led to an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled in a precedent-setting 3 - 1 decision in March 2004 that the federal labor law applied to San Manuel.

A circuit court in February 2007 upheld the NLRB ruling in its own 2 - 1 split decision.

Tribal casinos have created about 670,000 jobs, according to the National Indian Gaming Association. Around 75 percent are non-Indian, which factored into the NLRB claim in San Manuel that federal law applies.

The UAW began to organize Foxwoods dealers at the same time and the dealers' vote last November was the first to be conducted under federal labor laws.

Peter C. Schaumber, a Bush appointee who was designated chairman of the NLRB in March, wrote the sole dissenting opinion in the San Manuel case in March 2004.

At the 33rd annual Federal Bar Association Indian law conference in Albuquerque, N.M., in early April, Schaumber said he was extremely disappointed when his colleagues overturned 30 years of precedent and subjected tribes to federal labor law, according to a report on www.indianz.com.

Schaumber said the board was ''turning a blind eye'' towards retained tribal sovereignty and the principles of federal Indian law that protect them.

A former federal prosecutor, he said the 2004 ruling is now being expanded at the expense of tribes.

''I will dissent in those decisions that expand San Manuel.''