The United Auto Workers brokered a deal between casino employees at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe. This was the first union contract to be negotiated under tribal law without reference to federal labor laws.
American Indian casinos are big business in the United States, with an estimated 280,000 people employed across more than 400 sites.
That huge workforce is largely unorganized. Only a few such casinos recognize union contracts. Among them is North America's largest gaming center, Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.
Its dealers recently struck a deal after a lengthy dispute with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe. What makes this agreement different is that it was brokered under tribal law.
Denise Gladue has been a blackjack dealer at Foxwoods Resort Casino for 15 years. She's among the vast majority of Foxwoods workers who are not tribal members. Back in the day, she says, it was a great place to work, but in late 2006 that began to change.
With the start of the recession more than two years ago, casinos across the country were struggling, and so were their employees.
"It just made a lot of us upset and angry that we were losing these good benefits that we had when the company was still making money," Gladue says.
So in 2007, a majority of the 2,500 table game dealers at Foxwoods' two casinos took a vote. They joined the United Auto Workers.
Unions have set their sights on the casino industry in general, and the UAW has had some luck organizing in non-tribal gaming operations. But when the dealers tried to negotiate with their employer, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, it would have none of it.
Officially recognized American Indian tribes are sovereign nations, not subject to many federal laws including, for 30 years, the National Labor Relations Act. But that changed in 2007 when a federal court ruled against the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians from California.
The ruling said that federal labor laws did apply to American Indian gaming operations because they employ a large number of non-American Indians. Tribes everywhere saw this as a huge erosion of sovereignty. Jackson King, who is general counsel to the Mashantuckets, says the tribe wanted to find a creative solution to that standoff. The tribe proposed that while both sides preserve their rights under federal law, the talks actually be convened under tribal law.
"Certainly when this was first brought up to the union, they thought it was ridiculous," King says. "And certainly the National Labor Relations Board — they said, 'Look, we don't know anything about Indian tribes — how you guys operate, or what your institutions are.' So it was educational. It was historical. And it was groundbreaking."
The two sides finally struck a deal last month. The contract gives the dealers a 12-percent raise over two years and a new system for distributing tips. It also allows casual dealers to become part-time employees with benefits. For management, the contract provides cost controls at a time when gaming has been hit hard by the recession.
"It really did feel very much like a win-win [with] respect and acknowledgment of tribal sovereignty, and at the same time having a legal framework that did protect employee rights," says Elizabeth Bunn, secretary-treasurer of the UAW.
The tribal law mirrors federal law closely, but with one major difference — the union has given up its right to strike and instead has agreed to binding arbitration. Bunn sees that as a plus.
"Interestingly in this case we would argue that tribal law is ahead of, more progressive than, federal labor law, at least for first contracts," Bunn says. "In fact we're advocating a legislative change at the federal level that would in fact have a similar provision."
The UAW now hopes to apply the tribal law solution to other casinos where the union is trying to organize. The Mashantuckets say many tribes have asked about the contract, but labor relations remain a very sensitive issue. Deron Marquez was chairman of the San Manuel tribe when the critical 2007 labor ruling came down. He says the Connecticut tribe has achieved something unusual.
"The [Mashantucket] Pequots were able to take a decision handed down by the D.C. Circuit, that was catastrophic, and find a way to reinsert its sovereign status into that labor relations realm," Marquez says.
At Foxwoods, Gladue says after years of uncertainty, she's pleased with the contract.
"I feel better, I feel more secure," she says. "I think that I know that there are rules, and I'm happier."
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