But Santa Clara Pueblo is nearing 40 years old. Maybe it's time for some fresh blood. And in today comes the Sixth Circuit in NLRB v. Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. The case involves a challenge to a tribal ordinance governing labor and employment rules, which primarily impact the tribe's multi-million dollar casino (most of whose employees and customers are non-tribal members, but whose revenue makes up the lion's share of the tribe's budget). From how it is described in the court opinion, the ordinance at issue would make Scott Walker blush:
[The ordinance] grants to the Band the authority to determine the terms and conditions under which collective bargaining may or may not occur; prohibits strikes, work stoppage, or slowdown by the Band’s employees and, specifically, by casino employees; prohibits the encouragement and support by labor organizations of employee strikes; prohibits any strike, picketing, boycott, or any other action by a labor organization to induce the Band to enter into an agreement; subjects labor organizations and employees to civil penalties for strike activity; subjects employees to suspension or termination for strike activity; subjects labor organizations to decertification for strike activity; subjects labor organizations to a ban on entry to tribal lands for strike activity; and requires labor organizations doing business within the jurisdiction of the Band to apply for and obtain a license. [It] also precludes collective bargaining over the Band’s decisions to hire, lay off, recall, or reorganize the duties of its employees; precludes collective bargaining over any subjects that conflict with the Band’s tribal laws; exempts the Band from the duty to bargain in good faith over the terms and conditions under which the Band’s employees may be tested for alcohol and drug use; limits the duration of collective bargaining agreements to three years or less; provides that decisions by the Band, through its Tribal Court, over disputes involving the duty to bargain in good faith or alleged conflicts between a collective-bargaining agreement and tribal laws shall be final and not subject to appeal; and limits the period of time during which employees may file a deauthorization petition. Further, [it] prohibits the requirement of membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment. It also prohibits the deduction of union dues, fees, or assessments from the wages of employees unless the employee has presented, and the Band has received, a signed authorization of such deduction. [It] prohibits Band employers, such as the casino, from giving testimony or producing documents in response to requests or subpoenas issued by non-tribal authorities engaged in investigations or proceedings on behalf of current or former employees, when such employees have failed to exhaust their remedies under the [tribal ordinance].Yowzers. Labor groups complained, alleging the ordinance was unlawful under the federal National Labor Relations Act. And they're almost certainly right ... if the NLRA applies to the tribe -- a question that the statute is silent on. That was the question before the Sixth Circuit, and in a 2-1 decision the court agreed with the National Labor Relations Board that the statute did apply as against the tribe.
Having read the opinions though, I'm inclined to think that the dissent got the better of it. This law seems repulsive to me, and its enactment is enough to convince me that the NLRA should apply to tribes. But the statute is silent on that question, and the real question is what we should infer from that silence. The majority opinion draws the sweeping conclusion that, subject to a few exceptions, when Congress crafts a generally-applicable law we should assume that they intended to divest tribes of their sovereignty over that area. This is a 180 to how I understand tribal sovereignty, which is that we assume that tribes maintain most if not all of their sovereign powers unless Congress takes some specific step to demonstrate it intends to strip that sovereignty away. Here, there is no indication that Congress thought it was applying the NLRA to Indian tribes, and the extraordinarily belated attempt by the NLRB to assert such authority makes that inference even more dubious as a matter of congressional intent.
Incidentally, for all you folks who think all contested legal questions boil down to politics, the panel consisted of -- you guessed it -- two Republicans and one Democrat. What you might not have guessed is that it was the Republicans who split: George W. Bush appointee Julia Smith Gibbons wrote the opinion, joined by Carter appointee Gilbert Stroud Merritt. The dissent was authored by fellow GWB appointee David McKeague.
The case may feel like a good outcome, but I think it creates a bad rule. Respect for tribal sovereignty and autonomy means our default should be to preserve their sovereign authority unless Congress makes evident its intent to do the contrary. Ordinances like this certainly heighten the appeal of "the contrary" in the labor law context. But ultimately, that's a decision for Congress to make. Allowing Courts to make it for them, and in the process make tribal sovereignty the exception rather than the rule, would have devastating consequences for the autonomy and independence of Indian tribes and runs counter to the basic principle of Indian sovereignty.