Chippewa launch offensive in Casino War

In an effort to ward off unionization efforts under the federal National Labor Relations Act, some tribes have adopted labor laws that allow employees to organize under tribal law. The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe has taken a different approach. "The position of this tribe is that the National Labor Relations Act does not apply to Indian tribes and the National Labor Relations Board does not have jurisdiction, and, that being the case, we don't believe we have to adopt an ordinance that allows union organizing to occur. The ordinance the tribe adopted prohibits union organizing," said Saginaw Chippewa attorney Sean Reed.

A wave of unionization efforts under the federal labor law began last year following a District of Columbia appeals court ruling that a casino owned and operated on tribal land by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians was subject to the NLRA.

Saginaw Chippewa Chief Fred Cantu Jr. summarily rejected the notion that the federal labor laws apply on sovereign tribal lands.

"I think the National Labor Relations Board thinks this [the NLRA] is a blanket policy that affects all of Indian country, that they have the skeleton key that fits every door, and that's not true. Each tribe is its own nation, has its own laws and government. I think it's a direct attack on our sovereignty," he said.

The tribe has had two unionization efforts in two months. Housekeeping staff at the tribe's Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort voted 192 - 88 against unionization with the Teamsters union last December.

The International Union, Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America canceled an election to unionize casino security workers two days before the scheduled Feb. 15 vote.

Cantu said the last-minute pullout was a move to avoid an unsuccessful outcome at the polls and part of a strategy to gain access to mailing lists of the tribe's employees.

"We think they were trying to save face so they decided to pull the carpet underneath our employees, which isn't fair to our employees. I think it was a tactic to manipulate the system and obtain our employees' mailing addresses."

According to a report in the Morning Sun local newspaper, the organizing director for the SPFPA confirmed that the union called for an election, but never planned to go through with it. Union leader Steve Maritas said the union simply wanted to get the list of names and addresses of the casino security and surveillance personnel the union hopes to organize, the report said.

When a union representation election is scheduled, federal law requires an employer to release that list to the union. Maritas said the union plans to use the list for organizing and will ask for a late-summer election. If the vote had taken place and failed, under federal law the union would not be allowed to hold another vote for a year.

According to the tribe's research, since January 2001, the SPFPA has withdrawn 204 petitions after having filed for an election.

With both the Teamsters and SPFPA unions promising to continue unionizing efforts among Soaring Eagle's 3,000 employees, the tribe is taking steps to address employees' concerns while maintaining its position or sovereign authority over labor issues on its land.

"What this tribe has done is we've adopted a two-prong approach. We will actually participate to allow the election to occur and we will educate and inform our employees as to what a union would mean and, hopefully, we'll prevail on the election, at the same time fighting the sovereignty jurisdictional issue," Reed said.

Tribal leaders have been meeting with employees to discuss workplace issues and have hired a consultant to help ''educate'' employees about unions.

"We want to create a better work environment and we've indicated to our employees that we're here to strive to provide a better work environment for them," Cantu said.

What happens if a union vote is successful?

"We're going to continue to operate the way we have. We're going to make sure we have an open-door policy and address our employees' needs, and I don't really think we'll have to worry about a union winning an election," Stanley said.

Does the tribe provide good pay and working conditions?

"The Saginaw Chippewa tribe has always tried to provide good wages, good health benefits and a safe work place and we try to make it a nice place for our employees. There was some lapse at some time that brought us to this, but we're going to make sure we take care of that. We hold our employees in the highest regard and we respect them and recognize their contribution to our organization, and we feel we can handle their concerns without a third party interfering in our business," Stanley said.


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