When it comes to American Indian affairs, bi-partisanship – even non-partisanship – is commonplace.  For decades, we have benefitted from advocates on both sides of the aisle working together to strengthen tribal governments and economies and improve the lives of Indian people.  The list of champions from both parties is long. Like our friends in the Congress, we find inspiration for our beliefs from the Republican and Democratic parties respectively, and do not agree on some of the issues of our day.

One issue where we do agree is the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act, legislation pending in both the House and the Senate that would provide much-needed guidance to the National Labor Relations Board in the wake of its decisions that treat Indian tribal governments like second-class citizens and ignore our governmental status when it comes to the National Labor Relations Act.

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The simple fact is this: when Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, its intent was to require private sector employers to engage in collective bargaining with their employees.  At the same time, Congress deliberately eliminated from the NLRA’s coverage public sector employers, so state, local and federal governments are excluded from the definition of “employer.”

Why did Congress make this distinction?  It recognized the key differences between private employers and government employers when it comes to labor relations and did not want to engender the kind of labor strife and work stoppages that could paralyze local, state and the federal governments, jeopardizing public health and safety in the process.  We believe the same principle must apply to Tribal governments.

Nowhere in the NLRA are Indian tribes mentioned; they are not included or excluded from the definition of “employer,” likely because no one in Congress saw Indian tribes as employers in 1935.

For 70 years after enactment, the NLRB looked at these facts and refused to have Indian tribes bound by the NLRA.  All that changed in 2004 with the Board’s San Manuel Indian Bingo decision which abruptly overruled seven decades of precedent and declared that the NLRA applies to tribal government employers.

This injustice is important because with the stroke of the NLRB pen, and without any change to the NLRA or congressional guidance, tribal governments became the only governments in the United States to be bound by the NLRA.

As tribal chairmen, we know full well that tribal governments provide a huge array of public services and programs to their tribal citizens as well as to the surrounding communities.  Tribal police, fire and EMS departments, schools and hospitals, natural resource management, and other divisions of our governments all play crucial roles in the safety, health and stability of tribal communities. 

The NLRB’s San Manuel decision is improper and not in keeping with the governmental standing of American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes.  Congress needs to rectify the Board’s flawed decision and the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act is the best course of action to correct this erroneous interpretation of the NRLA.

The House bill (H.R.511) is a bi-partisan bill, with 55 co-sponsors including several Democrats.  It would properly add tribal governments to the list of other governments specifically excluded from the definition of “employer” in the NLRA and re-instate Congress’ initial intent when it first passed the NLRA in 1935.  The Senate version (S. 248) has a dozen sponsors.

Tribal sovereignty means respecting tribal authority and decision-making when it comes to the operation of our governments. This important legislation  is supported by close to 100 Indian tribes and Indian organizations across the country, including the National Congress of American Indians, the National American Indian Housing Council, the Inter-Tribal Timber Council, and others.

It is long past time for Congress to provide corrective guidance to the NLRB and provide parity to tribal governments.  Congress should pass, and President Obama should sign, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act.

Allen is chairman/CEO of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in Sequim, Washington, and Melendez is chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony of Nevada.