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Lawlessness on the Reservation: Labor Laws Dismissed

Congress is trying to exempt people working on an Indian Reservation from being covered under the NLRA, preventing them from organizing

Brian Young's picture
Jan 11, 2018

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects all private sector workers by giving them some basic workplace rights, like the right to bargain collectively and take collective action. While there are some carve outs for domestic workers, supervisors, agricultural workers and those covered under the Railway Labor Act, the vast majority of employees are covered. Now Congress wants to create another carve out for people who work on a Native American reservation.

The new exemption, which was buried in a bill to extend Southwest tribal water rights, was proposed by Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ). He is the same Senator who has sponsored the bill to repeal Davis-Bacon. The bill passed the House and now will be sent to the Senate.

The issue of whether or not the NLRA covers people who work on the reservation has been a long-standing fight. Business leaders have argued that tribes should be treated as local governments and that all employees working on the reservation should be classified as local government employees. All government employees are exempt from the NLRA. Labor leaders however, argue that many of the people working on the reservation are not part of the tribe and that these workers would lose a voice in their workplace since they have no vote over the tribal council, the way other public employees do. With the expansion of Indian gaming in the last few decades, some reservations now employ tens of thousands of people and make hundreds of millions of dollars. The gaming and hospitality industry is heavily unionized creating an incentive for tribal leaders to have their employees exempt.

The bill will now head to the Senate, where Sen. Jerry Moran has already introduced a similar bill. In response to the bill passing, HELP Committee ranking member Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) said this bill "strips hundreds of thousands of workers employed at Indian-owned enterprises - such as casinos, hotels, and mines - of their voice in the workplace and the protections under the National Labor Relations Act."

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