Tribes, state congressional delegation differ on labor-law amendment

Connecticut’s congressional delegation and the state’s casino-owning Indian tribes — factions frequently allied with one another — are on opposite sides of a bill that would exempt tribes from federal labor law.

The House rolled the measure into a legislative package that passed earlier this month, 239-173.

Republicans overwhelmingly endorsed the package while most Democrats rejected it, including all five of Connecticut’s representatives. The state’s senators are expected to vote against the labor-law amendment, too, if it’s put to a vote in their chamber.

Meanwhile, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, respective owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, have supported the bill, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2017, as they did a 2015 version that the Senate failed to take up.

Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket chairman, recalled Tuesday that he traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify in favor of the earlier version.

“One of the most unique moments for me as chairman was that hearing,” Butler said. “I was sitting across the table from Congressman (Joe) Courtney — I consider him a friend — and we just had to agree to disagree. He was looking at it from a labor perspective, and I was there because I had to protect tribal sovereignty. We left the hearing and we shook hands.”

Courtney, whose 2nd District encompasses eastern Connecticut, including the casinos, was unavailable to comment Tuesday, according to a spokesman.

The amendment would exclude tribal enterprises located on tribal lands — such as tribal casinos — from the definition of “employer” under the National Labor Relations Act, which enables most private-sector employees to form a union, bargain collectively and file unfair labor practices complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. Adding tribes to the list of excluded employers would classify them the way state and local governments are classified.

“That’s all we want — to be treated like other governments,” Butler said.

The Mashantuckets enacted their own tribal labor law nearly a decade ago in the wake of the United Auto Workers’ effort to organize table-games dealers at Foxwoods. Subsequent contract negotiations between the tribe and Local 2121 of the UAW have been conducted under the tribal law, and tribal and casino employees have since affiliated with three other unions.

In addition to the 1,400 dealers represented by Local 2121, more than 200 members of Foxwoods’ engineering department are affiliated with the International Union of Operating Engineers and more than 270 beverage servers are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. More than two dozen members of the Mashantucket tribal fire department are affiliated with the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Although no Mohegan Sun employees are affiliated with unions, the Mohegan Tribe does have unionized workers at properties it owns and operates in other states. In addition, the third Connecticut casino the Mohegans and the Mashantuckets plan to develop in East Windsor is to be built by union construction workers.

The Mohegans have been less visible than the Mashantuckets in supporting the labor-law amendment.

“We’re not anti-union, never have been,” Chuck Bunnell, the Mohegans’ chief of staff, said. “We do believe tribal governments should be on a par with other governments (in being exempt from NLRA provisions). That’s essentially what this bill would do.”

Like the Mashantuckets, the Mohegans have adopted a tribal labor law that allows workers to affiliate with unions. So far, all attempts to organize Mohegan Sun employees under the law have failed, Bunnell said.

While the Connecticut tribes are mostly concerned about the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act’s potential impact on tribes’ right to govern themselves, leaders of organized labor and many in Congress see the legislation as a threat to workers’ well-being.

“While I strongly support the sovereignty of federally recognized tribes and their right to self-governance, this bill has little to do with that important cornerstone of federal-tribal relations or tribal authority,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat, said in a statement provided by his office. “The Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act — despite what its name implies — would instead strip millions of workers of their rights, robbing them of fundamental workplace protections.” 

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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