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UAW, tribes on opposite sides of U.S. labor bill

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A bill that would exempt Indian tribes from federal labor law likely would have little impact on southeastern Connecticut’s reservations, where the casino-owning Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans have adopted their own labor laws.

That’s the view of a top United Auto Workers official, whose union represents some 1,500 table-games dealers at the Mashantuckets’ Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Although the National Labor Relations Board conducted the UAW’s 2007 election at Foxwoods, the Mashantuckets subsequently recognized Local 2121 of the UAW under tribal law, noted Julie Kushner, director of UAW Region 9A, which covers eastern New York, New England and Puerto Rico.

“At Foxwoods, there’s going to be a union regardless of whether this becomes law,” Kushner said last week, referring to H.R. 511, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2015. “The union there is very strong and imbedded. I’m not concerned that passage of this bill would eliminate the union at Foxwoods.”

The U.S. House approved the bill by a 249-177 vote on Nov. 17, setting the stage for the Senate to consider its version of the legislation. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, voted against the measure, as did Connecticut’s four other representatives.

The Mashantuckets had lobbied for passage of the bill, contending it would help preserve tribal sovereignty. The Mohegans took the same position.

The UAW was “very actively engaged” in opposing the bill, according to Kushner.

“What I find abhorrent about it is that it’s an effort by Republicans in Congress to eliminate or diminish people’s right to have a union,” she said. “What’s unfortunate is that some of our Democrats don’t recognize it as an attack on labor.”

Kushner, who served as chief negotiator for Foxwoods dealers’ first union contract, said the UAW agreed in 2008 to negotiate under tribal law because the union retained some protections under federal law. The UAW and the Mashantuckets are about to begin talks on a third contract. The tribe has also signed contracts with unions representing tribal firefighters and Foxwoods' beverage servers and tradesmen. No Mohegan employees are unionized. 

“The Mashantucket Pequots have a very good labor law, but we are confident that we’d have an out if there were any fundamental changes in it,” Kushner said. “The tribal law could change by vote of the tribal council. In that case, we have protection by virtune of having had an election under the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) and a history of successful bargaining.”

She said some people involved in the debate don’t understand that no universal tribal labor laws apply.

“It’s not as if Mashantucket Pequot law exists anywhere else,” Kushner said. “If this bill becomes law, many, many workers will lose the right to union representation.”

The Mohegans’ labor law, adopted in 2010, is not as well developed as the Mashantucket law, according to Kushner. For example, she said, it does not provide for an independent arbitrator to conduct elections and settle complaints, as the Mashantucket law does.

“Having a truly independent person making decisions about enforcing the law — that’s critical,” she said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

Twitter: @bjhallenbeck

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