Measure Exempting Tribes from Labor Laws Might be Defense Bill Rider

Supporters of a bill that would exempt Indian tribes from federal labor laws hope to slip it past a possible veto by President Obama (l.) by making a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act. The bill is supported by tribes and Republicans but opposed by unions and most Democrats.

Sponsors in the U.S. Senate of the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act are hoping to immunize it from a presidential veto by incorporating it as an amendment to a vital defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act.

The Act would exempt tribes and tribal enterprises, including casinos from the National Labor Relations Act as states and the federal government are exempted. For 70 years the National Labor Relations Board acted as though tribes were exempt from the act, but then a few years ago began to try to enforce federal labor laws on tribal businesses.

The Obama administration, most Democratic senators and labor unions oppose the bill, and have opposed it since it originated in the House, which passed it in 2015. The measure could go to a vote in the Senate this week.

Kansas Senator Jerry Moran, a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, introduced the amendment, S248, in May.

The Office of Management And Budget, which is under the president, issued a statement on the bill that says, “Therefore, the administration can support a bill that recognizes tribal sovereignty in formulating labor relations law and exempts tribes from the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board only if the tribes adopt labor standards and procedures applicable to tribally-owned and operated commercial enterprises reasonably equivalent to those in the National Labor Relations Act.”

The bill is supported by the National Indian Gaming Association, whose lobbyist Nighthorse Campbell write last week, “It is time for Congress to do what it should have done in 2004 and that is to provide corrective guidance to the National Labor Relations Act and provide parity to tribal governments.” He added, “Congress should pass and the President should sign the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act.” Campbell is a retired U.S. Senator from Colorado.

Campbell, noting that in 1935 when the NLRA was passed and FDR signed it, that, “Recognizing that State, local and federal government employers could be paralyzed by labor strikes, Congress wisely and appropriately specifically excluded these governments from the definition of “employer” in the statute and thereby from the requirements the Act imposed on private sector employers.”

It’s not surprising that Congress did not specifically exclude tribes from the act in 1935, says Campbell because, “after decades of failed federal policies aimed at breaking up the tribal land base, assimilating Indian people, and hoping tribes would wither and die, Congress probably did not view tribal governments as employers as it did State, local and federal employers.”

The Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act would rectify that omission, he says.

Supporters of the bill note that tribal governments provide many government services, such as tribal police and fire, ambulances, schools, hospitals, health and welfare programs. Some states and cities run businesses, such as convention centers, golf courses, ports, hotels and liquor stores—and yet are exempt from the NLRA.