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Native American Leaders Urge Congress to Pass the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act

The House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions, chaired by Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), held a hearing today to examine the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2017 (H.R. 986). Introduced by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), the legislation would protect Native American sovereignty by preventing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) from asserting jurisdiction over tribal businesses operated on tribal land. 

For nearly 70 years, the NLRB respected tribal sovereignty. Then in 2004, the board began using a subjective test to determine when and where to assert its jurisdiction over Native American tribes.

“This hearing is about one basic principle: The sovereign rights of Native Americans must be protected,” Chairman Walberg said. “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.”

Tribal leaders testifying before the committee explained the consequences of the board’s actions.

Robert Welch, chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, said the “continued threat of NLRB intrusion” undermines their ability “to deliver essential government services and meet the present and future needs of its citizens.”

Intrusion by the NLRB is a reality the Viejas Band knows all too well. For more than a year, the tribe has faced legal action by the NLRB after providing bonuses to its employees that were opposed by their union.

Welch said H.R. 986 “would immediately end the NLRB’s meddling in the tribal governance of the Viejas Band” and “save U.S. taxpayers and tribal governments from the substantial legal costs of ongoing and future actions by the NLRB against tribal governments.”

Witnesses flatly rejected claims made by Democrats that without the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), tribal employees would not receive adequate worker protections.

“Indian tribes, like other government employers, have a huge interest in ensuring that their employees are satisfied and productive in serving community needs,” said Brian Cladoosby, chair of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and president of the National Congress of American Indians. “In fact, tribal government employers regularly are hailed as the best employers in their regions.”

Speaking on behalf of the Navajo Nation, Nathaniel Brown explained his tribe has “passed its own laws governing labor, including the Navajo Preference in Employment Act (NPEA) that provides protection for its employees. It provides for rules on preference in employment, wages, health and safety, appeals, hearings, etc.” He also noted that under the law, a “worker’s right to join a union is protected.”

Welch informed the committee that the Viejas Band has also passed its own labor law with “provisions that are similar to the NLRA.” He noted that the tribe has even received a “Spirit of Cooperation Award” from the AFL-CIO. “As one of the largest employers in east San Diego country, the Viejas Band takes its role as an employer very seriously … Tribal governments, when allowed to exercise their sovereignty, are capable of developing laws that protect the rights of workers within a fair framework.”

Tribal leaders urged Congress to reverse the troubling encroachment on their sovereignty and authority by passing the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act.

Congress should “move quickly to enact H.R. 986 to fix a problem created by the [NLRB’s] decision to single out Indian tribes as the only form of government in the United States subjected to the National Labor Relations Act,” Cladoosby said. “This is not merely a legal issue but a moral imperative of protecting and defending the sovereignty of America’s Indian tribes, and guarding against any discrimination against those tribes.”

“We simply want parity,” Brown added. “If [states] are able to self-govern and be self-determined with regards to the NLRA, so should we. We are simply asking that our right to self-govern is acknowledged and not brushed aside by an external agency.”

Expressing his support for the legislation and the need to protect the sovereign rights of Native Americans, Chairman Walberg said, “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.”

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