WASHINGTON – In the ongoing battle from many tribes against unionization on their sovereign lands, tribal leaders have found a new friend in Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D.
Noem, who began serving in Congress this year, introduced legislation June 23 in an effort, she said, to clarify that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) does not have jurisdiction over tribally owned businesses on reservation land as a matter tribal sovereignty.
The backstory, as offered in a press release from the congresswoman’s office: “In 2004 the National Labor Relations Board, which is the federal agency of the U.S. government charged with conducting elections for labor union representation and other labor-related duties, determined that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) applies to activities on reservation lands. This bill would reverse that decision. The legislation stands to defend tribal sovereignty and promote economic opportunities on reservations lands by eliminating ambiguity in existing federal law.”
The labor board’s decision said the following: “As tribal businesses prosper, they become significant employers of non-Indians and serious competitors with non-Indian owned businesses. When Indian tribes participate in the national economy in commercial enterprises, when they employ substantial numbers of non-Indians, and when their businesses cater to non-Indian clients and customers, the tribes affect interstate commerce in a significant way.”
“When the Indian tribes act in this manner, the special attributes of their sovereignty are not implicated,” according to the decision, which served to reverse longstanding policy that said on-reservation tribal enterprises were exempt from the labor law.
After the 2004 decision was announced many tribes strategized to limit its impact, raising concerns that it could usurp their sovereignty by forcing them to recognize a vast number of employee unions on their reservations nationwide. Tribes employ many thousands of workers, and unions would create a costly burden that some tribal leaders simply do not want to accept.
“I don’t want any labor unions here,” John Yellow Bird Steele, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, told the Rapid City Journal in an article published June 24. He told the newspaper that he’s had “troubled interactions” with unions on the reservation, including the teachers’ union at the Pine Ridge High School.
Anti-union tribal leaders now have a new advocate in Noem: “As a matter of sovereignty, the tribes don’t need big labor meddling in their affairs,” she said in explaining her rationale for the legislation. “By removing this ambiguity in the law we can promote economic development on tribal land because businesses, large and small, need more certainty before they can grow.”
Noem framed the issue as a threat to the foundation of Indian law and the principle of tribal sovereignty, which is true—even though some tribal citizens and non-Indian reservation workers would love to see unions gain a place on tribal lands, since employees often fail to have the job protections and collective bargaining rights that unions can offer workers.
In sum, Noem’s bill would amend the National Labor Relations Act to provide that any business owned and operated by an Indian tribe on Indian lands is not subject to the jurisdiction of the NLRA, and thus the NLRB would not have administration and enforcement powers on reservation land for tribally owned businesses.
The bill was co-sponsored by Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Tom McClintock, R-Calif. Rep. Tom Cole, R-OK, and the only American Indian serving in Congress, also co-sponsored. Little Democratic support is expected on the bill due to widespread Democratic support for unions.