Yesterday, in a 249-177 majority vote, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2015, that prohibits the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) from intervention in tribal affairs, mainly gaming facilities, was passed by Congress.

The measure, H.R.511, is intended to give authority back to tribal leaders and restore the legal standard that was in place long before the NLRB made the decision to change course. The bill was cosponsored by Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke. H.R.511 is an affirmation that the National Labor Relations Act does not apply to any Indian owned and operated businesses located on tribal land, and protects the sovereignty of Native American tribes. It returns control over employee-employer relations to tribal leaders so that they are able to govern in a manner determined to be best for their workplaces, eliminating uncertainty and legal confusion.

The bill was supported by key Democrats and top Republicans, including Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. However, a strongly-worded dissent in a report filed by several Democrats on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which accompanied the bill argued that H.R.511 gives tribes carte blanche over their employees, the majority of whom are non-Indian, and attempts to take away workers bargaining ability and dismantle labor unions.

Exemption from the NLRA has been sought after by the tribes ever since the 2004 San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino ruling in which the NLRB asserted jurisdiction over a tribe for the first time in decades, but efforts to address the issue ran into serious opposition from Democrats and their labor union allies at that time. Since that 2004 ruling, tribes have won support from key Democrats by pitching the issue as one of parity with other governments, and with Republicans in control of the House and Senate, the bill moved quickly in the 114th Congress.

The only exception came in June when the NLRB declined to assert jurisdiction at the WinStar World Casino and Resort, a casino owned by the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, citing the tribe’s treaty-protected right to self-governance. Less than a week later the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals backed the NLRB’s jurisdiction and issued two conflicting and confusing rulings, which questioned the application of the NLRA in the 2004 ruling.

The U.S. federal law that establishes the jurisdictional framework that governs Indian gaming, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), has been a source of extensive controversy and litigation since it was passed in 1988.

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