The IBEW has joined with other unions in opposing proposed federal legislation that would thwart legal protections for employees who work for private businesses that Native American tribes have even a small financial interest in.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. is sponsoring legislation that would roll back protected labor rights for employees working at properties owned by Native American tribes.
Photo provided under a Flickr/Creative Commons Agreement by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers’ Kansas City District.

The bill, which was passed on by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last month, would make any business or corporation partially or wholly owned by a tribe exempt from the National Labor Relations Act, the 1935 law that guarantees workers the right to join a union. The House approved a similar bill in 2015 and the full Senate is expected to consider it later this year.

“The NLRA provides workers the right to form or join unions and collectively bargain for better wages, hours or working conditions,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson wrote in a letter to the committee. “The IBEW does not support taking these rights away.”

Austin Keyser, director of the Political and Legislative Affairs Department, said the IBEW recognizes that tribes have federal-protected sovereignty when it comes to their own governmental issues. But workers’ rights must be respected when they enter into business deals with private companies, he said.

Publicly, Native American tribes usually are associated with casinos, but they also have interests in the lodging, retail and financial services industries, among others. The United Auto Workers represents about 1,500 table game dealers at an Indian Casino in Connecticut.

“This legislation would impact mining operations, power plants, saw mills, construction companies, ski resorts, high-tech firms, hotels and spas,” Stephenson wrote.

Keyser noted most of the workers that would be affected aren’t tribal members.

“We’re not talking about Indian owned and run businesses with Native Americans working there,” he said. “We’re talking about private businesses where they hire private contractors to run it.”

The House voted 249-177 in November 2015 to approve a bill sponsored by Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind. Then-President Barack Obama opposed it, but the bill never made it out of the Senate, where the current bill is sponsored by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. President Donald Trump hasn’t publicly stated his position.

The proposed law could have an impact on IBEW members by putting signatory contractors at a disadvantage when bidding on projects against Native American-owned businesses. Union signatory contractors usually provide better benefits and higher wages than nonunion counterparts. Many businesses owned by Native Americans already receive tax breaks because they are considered economically disadvantaged by the Small Business Administration.

“If this was a narrowly worded bill, where it simply said that a project or business was on land that is 100 percent owned by a tribe, is in a tribal trust, and is run by the tribe and not a private entity, I don’t see how we could oppose it,” Keyser said. “But the fact of the matter is that’s not what is happening.”

Attempts to undermine the National Labor Relations Act have been a mainstay for far-right groups. Their efforts to use tribal sovereignty to do so began in 2004, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled it had jurisdiction over labor issues involving tribal business enterprises. That decision was appealed, but a federal appeals court upheld it in 2007 in a win for working families.

Congress got involved after the GOP took control of the Senate after the 2014 midterm elections. Advocates for working families maintain the proposed law isn’t to aid Native Americans, who traditionally vote Democrat in large numbers. Rather, it’s to limit rights of working people.

“Make no mistake, the legislation is a veiled attempt to silence the voices of working people,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said after the House vote in 2015. “The AFL-CIO believes in both tribal sovereignty and worker solidarity. We don’t have to choose.”

Proponents of the proposed law argue that because tribes have a federally protected right to govern themselves, workers on projects where they have an interest should be treated like employees for state and local governments, who are exempted from the NLRA.

Stephenson strongly disputed that in his letter.

“The NLRA only exempts government employees, not private sector employees performing government work,” he said. “Additionally, the enterprises outlined. …. are not inherently governmental in nature. The comparison that is being made between tribal-owned-and-operated enterprises and state and local governments is incorrect.”