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Committee Statements

Kline Statement: Markup of H.R. 511, "Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act"

Today the committee will consider H.R. 511, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2015. This important legislation will prevent the National Labor Relations Board from exerting jurisdiction over Native American businesses operating on tribal lands.

As we all know, policies governing labor-management relations are extremely complex and controversial. More than 80 years after its enactment, the National Labor Relations Act continues to be a source of heated debate in the United States Congress and in workplaces across the country. No doubt that debate will continue to take place in this committee as we work to ensure the law is implemented fairly and objectively.

But that’s a debate for another time. The bill before us is not about union workers versus nonunion workers; it’s not about big business versus big labor; and it’s not about Republican versus Democrat. The bill we are considering today is about whether Native Americans should be free to govern employee-employer relations in a way they determine is best for their workplaces.

Over the last 10 years, the National Labor Relations Board has taken an approach contrary to the rights of Native Americans and long-standing labor policies. In a 2004 decision, the board broke from more than 30 years of precedent and decided it has jurisdiction over tribal activities. Since that time, the board has determined on a case-by-case basis whether a business on tribal land is for commercial purposes, and if it is, the board will assert its jurisdiction over that business.

At a subcommittee hearing held in June, Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation of Connecticut, criticized the board’s decision as an “affront to Indian Country.” He went on to say that the board’s flawed logic “suggests that Indian tribes are incapable of developing laws and institutions to protect the rights of employees who work on our reservations.” Jefferson Keel, Lieutenant Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, described the board’s approach as “incompatible with the very nature of sovereignty and self-government.”

Imagine the public outcry we would hear across the country if the board began imposing its will on enterprises owned and operated by state and local governments, such as schools, parks, and recreation centers. Are we supposed to believe that state leaders in California and Connecticut are more capable of managing their affairs than the leaders of the Shakopee and Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribes?

Yet for more than a decade, that’s precisely the message the board has sent to Native Americans.

It is time for Congress to right this wrong, and the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act will help us do just that. The bill amends the National Labor Relations Act to reaffirm that the National Labor Relations Board cannot assert its authority over Indian tribes and enterprises or institutions owned and operated by an Indian tribe on tribal land. This is the same standard that was in place before the board abruptly changed course and it must be the standard that governs the board’s actions moving forward.

I want to thank Congressman Todd Rokita for his leadership on this important issue. Over the years, a number of men and women in Congress have helped lead the fight on behalf of tribal sovereignty. Thanks to their hard work, we are here considering a proposal that will restore to Indian tribes the ability to regulate labor relations in their businesses and ensure they are afforded the same rights and protections enjoyed by state and local government leaders.

Two years ago, President Obama signed an executive order establishing a White House Council on Native American Affairs. Now, I am not usually one to cite favorably an executive order by the president, but I do believe this one is pertinent to today’s meeting. The executive order says:

“The United States recognizes a government-to-government relationship, as well as a unique legal and political relationship, with federally recognized tribes … Honoring these relationships and respecting the sovereignty of tribal nations is critical to advancing tribal self-determination and prosperity.”

That is the essence of why we are here today – to honor and respect the sovereignty of tribal nations. Native Americans have spoken loud and clear: They do not want an unelected and unaccountable federal labor board dictating policies in their workplaces. I urge my colleagues to stand with the Native American community by supporting the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act.

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