6th Circuit says Michigan tribe subject to federal labor laws

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A federal appeals court says a northern Michigan Indian tribe does not get to set its own labor rules at the casino it operates near Manistee.

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians claimed tribal sovereignty allowed it to adopt its own laws that ban strikes and discourage union organizing by casino employees. The Teamsters challenged the tribal act, and the union won before the National Labor Relations Board.

But the Little River Band says the board has no jurisdiction in this instance.

Not so, says the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court says Indian tribes are sovereign, but, with just a few exceptions, federal laws still apply to them. The court said the Indian Gaming Regularity Act was adopted by Congress to help tribes with economic development.

“It does not, however, immunize the operation of Indian commercial gaming enterprises from the application of other generally applicable congressional statutes,” says the majority opinion penned by Appeals Court Judge Julia Smith Gibbons.

Gibbons’ opinion court says there are a few exceptions that ensure tribes’ independence when it comes things like internal governance, membership, inheritance rights and domestic relations. But not when it comes to businesses.

In this case, the Sixth Circuit says federal labor laws apply because most of the Little River Band’s employees are not tribal members and don’t live on the reservation.

It was a split decision, though. Appeals Judge David McKeague says the decision turns tribal legal precedents on their head and hinted the case might be by ripe for a review by the US Supreme Court.

“In the process, we contribute to a judicial remaking of the law that is authorized neither by Congress nor the Supreme Court,” he wrote in his dissent.