In a decision that sets reasonable limits on the extent of tribal sovereignty, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has ruled that Indian casinos must observe federal labor laws.
The court said the National Labor Relations Board has the right to regulate labor conditions for those workers in the same way it does for workers at non-Indian enterprises. That's good news for the quarter-million workers, most of them non-Indians, who are employed at the nation's 400-plus Indian casinos. Indian casinos in California employ about 50,000.
The ruling stems from a dispute between the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, one of the richest gambling tribes in California. The union complained to the National Labor Relations Board that the tribe allowed a rival union access to casino employees for organizing purposes but barred HERE organizers. The tribe never denied the allegation. It simply asserted that as a sovereign government it was exempt from the National Labor Relations Act.
Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Janice Rogers Brown acknowledged the tension between tribal sovereignty and federal labor law. Nonetheless she found that "tribal sovereignty is not absolute autonomy, permitting a tribe to operate in a commercial capacity without legal constraint."
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In ruling that the NLRB has jurisdiction over working conditions at Indian casinos, Brown went on to point out what anyone who has ever visited a tribal casino has seen for themselves: "Operation of a casino is not a traditional attribute of self-government. Rather, the casino at issue here is virtually identical to scores of purely commercial casinos across the country. ... The vast majority of the Casino's employees and customers are not members of the tribe and they live off the reservation. For these reasons, the Tribe is not simply engaged in internal governance of its territory and members, and its sovereignty over such matters is not called into question."
Indian casinos now operate in 28 states. Tribal gambling enterprises rake in an estimated $22 billion annually. In many areas of California and throughout the country, booming Indian casinos are among the biggest local employers. Their employees deserve the same basic rights and protections federal law provides for employees of non-Indian casinos in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Last week's ruling helps to ensure they get that protection.