In a decision that could have ripple effects nationwide, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) has held that federal labor protections apply to an Indian tribe’s casino operations in Oklahoma.

Workers at the Winstar World Casino, in conjunction with the Teamsters, initiated the NLRB action because the Chickasaw Nation, a federally recognize tribe, refused to follow the National Labor Relations Act (the “NLRA”).  The tribe argued that the NLRA should not apply because of the tribe’s sovereign status.

The board disagreed.  In a case captioned Chickasaw Nation operating Winstar World Casino and International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 886, affiliated with the international Brotherhood of Teamsters, the board held that the NLRA would not impermissibly interfere with the tribe’s treaty-protected rights of self governance.

This is hardly the first time an Indian tribe has attempted bypass the NLRA, and the board in 2004 developed a test for such cases:  The NLRA will generally apply to Indian tribe casino operations unless

  1. the law “touche[d] exclusive rights of self government in purely intramural matters,”
  2. the application of the law would abrogate treaty rights, or
  3. there was proof in statutory language or legislative history that the law should not apply to tribes.  San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino, 341 NLRB 1055 (2004).

Applying these factors, the NLRB held that application of the NLRA would not violate the tribe’s sovereign rights.  The casino, the board held, was primarily commercial, not governmental in nature.

Construing these treaty rights to preclude the Board’s assertion of jurisdiction would mean that the enforcement of nearly all generally applicable federal laws would be nullified . . .” the board held.  “That result is untenable.”

The board order requires the tribe to cease and desist from informing employees that they do not have protections under the NLRA.