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Walberg Statement: Hearing on H.R. 986, "Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2017"

This hearing is about one basic principle: The sovereign rights of Native Americans must be protected.

This core principle is woven deep into the fabric of our shared history. It is part of who we are as a society and has long defined the unique government-to-government relationship that exists between the United States and independent, tribal nations.

What does tribal sovereignty mean? It means that Native American tribes have a fundamental right to self-govern. They have a right to self-determination. And they have the freedom to advance their own economic policies in the pursuit of prosperity for tribal members.

Bipartisan support for tribal sovereignty has been reaffirmed time and time again by Congress. And for more than 180 years, the Supreme Court has held that tribes possess a nationhood status and retain inherent powers of self-government.

Unfortunately, the National Labor Relations Board has taken a number of alarming steps in the past decade that have created widespread concern in the Native American community and threatened tribal sovereignty as we know it.

For nearly 70 years, the board respected Native American sovereignty and did not apply its jurisdiction under the National Labor Relations Act over tribes. The reason was simple. While the NLRA provides important protections for workers, it is a private sector labor law that specifically excludes state, local, and federal government employers.

Congress recognized the differences between public and private sector employment, so it afforded every level of government the freedom to determine its own labor policies. But that all changed in 2004. With its San Manuel Bingo & Casino decision, the board suddenly reversed course. It abandoned long-standing precedent and began using an arbitrary test to determine when and where to exert its jurisdiction over Native American tribes.

The board’s move understandably sparked outrage within the Native American community. In fact, the Chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Nation testified before this very committee, saying the board’s decision was “an affront to Indian Country.” He added that it “suggests that Indian tribes are incapable of developing laws and institutions that protect the rights of employees.”

We also heard from the Lieutenant Governor for the Chickasaw Nation — one of the largest tribes in the country. He testified that tribal sovereignty is a “profound issue of national importance that cannot be left in the hands of an admittedly inexpert federal agency.” I couldn’t agree more. The NLRB has no expertise in Indian law and has no business meddling in the affairs of tribal nations.

But the aggressive approach we’ve seen from unelected bureaucrats at the NLRB has only grown worse. A series of inconsistent and misguided decisions have created significant legal confusion for Native Americans and tribal-owned businesses.

In order to prevent future NLRB overreach, Congress must pass the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act. The legislation would amend the National Labor Relations Act to clarify that the law does not apply to businesses owned and operated by Native American tribes and located on tribal land. This will ensure that tribes receive the same treatment as states and local governments when it comes to policies impacting their workforce.

I want to thank our colleague Todd Rokita for championing this legislation. And I’d like to point out that this legislation is not about union workers versus non-union workers. What this legislation is about is very simple. It is about the fundamental principle that tribal governments are sovereign and are free to self-govern. Congress now has an opportunity to reaffirm this principle and follow through on our promise to the Native American community.