Sault Ste. Marie’s Tribal Chairperson Aaron Payment: “I Support the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act”

Tribes want its sovereign rights to apply in all areas of operations, including casinos.

Tribes want its sovereign rights to apply in all areas of operations, including casinos.

Guest Commentary

Published November 22, 2015

Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, November 17, 2015, passed the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2015, H.R. 511, which will, if it becomes law, reaffirm the exemption of tribal governments from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), upholds tribal sovereignty and protects self-governance on tribal lands. The House voted 249 -177 to pass the Act. The Senate is yet to vote on its version of the Act.

It has long been recognized that tribes are sovereign nations akin to statehood as memorialized in the U.S. Constitution, in several treaties, federal legislation and judicial precedence. Since the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in 1935, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) interpreted tribes as being governmental entities exempt from the Act.

Then, in 2004, without warning, the NLRB declared that the Act was intended to apply to tribes—with no notice, no hearings, and NO CONSULTATION. They did so with a complete disregard for tribes as sovereign nations.

Sault Ste. Marie Tribal Chairperson Aaron Payment

Sault Ste. Marie Tribal Chairperson Aaron Payment

Federal and state governments, are exempted from the Act, but are committed to protecting American workers; so, too, are tribal governments. It is insulting and paternalistic to think otherwise.

To achieve parity with other governments, Senate Bill 248 adds “tribes” to the definition of exempted governmental entities within the NLRA — nothing more, nothing less. The sole purpose of S. 248, is to recognize tribal sovereignty. Opponents have tried to confuse it as being legislation designed to limit the scope and strength of labor unions. This is patently false.

I urge lawmakers to recognize “our sovereignty is not negotiable.” It is possible to support tribal sovereignty and American workers at the same time. Tribal government employees, including non-Indians, do not leave their rights at the door when they become tribal employment team members.

I am convinced that, upon reflection, our friends in Congress, my senators in Michigan – Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters — and President Obama, will do the right thing by supporting the recognition of sovereignty. After all, we are not “kinda” sovereign, sometimes sovereign, sovereign out of political expediency or only during Native American month. We either are or we are not sovereign.

In many respects, President Obama set a new standard for respecting our sovereignty. Actions to oppose this legislation will set us back to the 1950s Termination Era. Now that it really matters, we are looking to President Obama’s continued leadership and support of Indian Country.

Aaron Payment is the tribal chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, based in Sault Ste. Michigan. With over 43,000 tribal citizens, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi and operates gaming and enterprises.  In addition to his role as tribal chairperson of his Tribe, Payment serves secretary for the National Congress of American Indians and serves on a tribal advisory board for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In August 2015, he was named to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education by President Obama.

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