Labor concerns trump tribal sovereignty in Congress

A bill exempting tribal nations from labor regulations fails in the Senate.

 

Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

Ten years of animosity between tribal governments and union organizers led up to a meltdown of bipartisan efforts to pass the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act on Monday. The bill, which would have excluded tribal governments from legislation allowing workers to unionize or strike, failed to receive the votes in the Senate it needed to pass. State and federal governments are already excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, and until recently tribal governments — being sovereign nations — were as well. But that changed in 2004, thanks to the law’s vague wording.

The NLRA was established in 1935, and for almost 80 years it prevented private industry from blocking workers’ unionization and strikes. But it did not apply to tribes, states and the federal government. However, in 2004, the National Labor Relations Board reversed that practice with regard to tribes because the law did not specifically exempt them under its definition of employer.

Chickasaw Nation Medical Center in Ada, Oklahoma. The Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act would have applied to tribal businesses operating on tribal lands.

Unions are understandably worried by the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act. If passed, it would apply to tribal businesses operating on tribal lands, from hotels and casinos to construction companies and power plants, potentially blocking hundreds of thousands of their workers from unionizing.

While the AFL-CIO continues to support the concept of tribal sovereignty in truly internal, self-governance matters, it is in no position to repudiate fundamental human rights that belong to every worker in every nation, the organization wrote in a January letter to Congress.

Republicans contest the 2004 change as government overreach, and asserted that treating tribes on a nation-to-nation basis does not come with stipulations.

“Many of those who have expressed opposition to this bill say, ‘I support tribal sovereignty but …’, said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, one of the measures authors. If you have to qualify tribal sovereignty to protect your own interests instead of the tribes, then, no, you really don’t support tribal sovereignty.”

Thats what Jefferson Keel, Lieutenant Governor of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and president of the National Congress of American Indians, calls conditional sovereignty.

Conditional sovereignty is not sovereignty at all: It is just a fence-straddling way out for those who are conflicted about their support for labor unions and their support for tribes and the inherent sovereignty they possess, Keel wrote recently in The Hill. But in policymaking, as in life, choices define who we are and what we value.

Keel argued the 2004 change is a clear and direct violation of tribes’ inherent sovereign rights: It is discriminatory, and an outrage.

Jefferson Keel, lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and president of the National Congress of American Indians, pictured in 2012.

The bill passed in the House last month. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, hopes to attach the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act to an upcoming appropriations measure, which lawmakers in both chambers must pass by the end of March to avoid a government shutdown.

The bill got support from both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. Still, on Monday, the majority of Democrats voted against it. Republicans are likely finding it easy to support, as their party is traditionally unsupportive of unions, and many Democrats see it as an issue shaped not by the sovereign rights of tribes but by the rights of workers to unionize.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, noted that bills from the Indian affairs committee generally receive the support of both parties, but Mondays vote was divided, which Udall noted when addressing his colleagues.

For the first time in ten years, this chamber just debated an Indian affairs bill using valuable floor time, not unanimous consent, he said. Udall expressed displeasure at being excluded from the drafting process in spite of his role as the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and chided his colleagues for dragging their feet for years when it comes to Indian Country writ large.

Over this decade, in which both Democrats and Republicans have held the majority, Indian Country has seen its priorities sidelined,” he said. “Important legislations that touches the lives of Native veterans, Native families, and Native communities from Maine to Hawaii, from Florida to Alaska, makes it out of the Indian Affairs committee only to die waiting on the Senate legislative calendar.

That includes measures such as the Native American Housing and Assistance and Self Determination Reauthorization Act, which would provide federal assistance for affordable housing in low-income areas of tribal lands, and the Progress for Indian Tribes Act, which could streamline the Department of the Interior’s self-governance process for tribes. Both have bipartisan support and have not received a hearing, Udall said. Its shameful that this full body does not resolve these important issues facing Indian Country.

On that point, its hard to disagree. Tribes and Indigenous communities have never been properly represented in Congress, a problem more and more Native Americans are hoping to personally help rectify by running for office. If anything, what happened on the House floor Monday was yet another example of why it is important to have Indigenous lawmakers at the table when deciding what is best for Indian Country. Like Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, a New Mexico state lawmaker of Piro-Manso-Tiwa ancestry, told me recently, even if just a few Indigenous lawmakers make it to Congress the results could be significant.

“Through our eyes, we know that through our history that just three or four of us can be resounding,” Roybal Caballero said.

Wado.

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • WYOMING CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    We are hiring a Wyoming Conservation Associate Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Cody, WY (preferred), Jackson, WY, or Lander, WY Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for...
  • SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the nations leading national park advocacy organization, seeks a Regional Director to lead and manage staff for the Southwest Regional...
  • DIRECTOR OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS
    This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • PROGRAM OFFICER, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES, NOVO FOUNDATION
    The Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social transformation...
  • ARMY OF THE DOG
    A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • ANNIE CLARK TANNER FELLOWSHIP IN ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • ALASKA STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • IDAHO RIVERFRONT:
    2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS IS EXPANDING - THREE JOB OPENINGS
    Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • SUNNYSIDE MARKET SEEKS NEW PROPRIETOR
    Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • NO INDIVIDUAL HEROES: OURAY MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM
    Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM COORDINATOR - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM MANAGER - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, SOUTHERN CA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • THE BOOK OF BARLEY -
    Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • TEMPORARY ASSISTANT EDITOR
    Are you a climber and a writer who is passionate about mountain literature? Do you love searching through old alpine journals for stories of esoteric...
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • RIVER TRIP LEADER & EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...