Civil Rights or Sovereignty Rights? Understanding the Historical Conflict between Native Americans and Organized Labor.

Friday, 20 July 2018: 15:30
Oral Presentation
Colleen O'NEILL, Utah State University, USA
Unions have played important roles in Indigenous struggles in Latin America and in campaigns that fueled civil rights movements in the United States, including efforts to organize agricultural, hospitality, and health care workers. But, Native Americans have had less of a connection with organized labor. Indeed, in the current climate, labor and tribes seemed to be locked in an adversarial relationship. Tribal leaders see unions as a threat to their sovereignty. Unions, such as Unite/HERE and the United Food and Commercial Workers, clearly see their rights to organize as part of a larger civil rights struggle.

Since 2004, federal district courts have sided with unions, asserting federal authority over tribal governments, and confirming the National Labor Relations Board’s authority to regulate labor issues in tribally owned and operated enterprises. Congress is now considering legislation that will overturn those decisions and exempt tribal governments from the National Labor Relations Act. Given the current make up of Congress and Trump’s presidency, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act seems likely to become law.

Comparing the labor campaigns and the associated historic legal battles that prompted that legislation in San Manuel, Chickasaw, and Mashantucket Pequot reservations, this paper examines the paradigmatic impasse that continues to fuel the conflict. Examining struggles between tribal governments and unions (that largely represent workers of color) reveals how distinct historical experience produced divergent types of political strategies and notions of citizenship.