HomePublicationsNewsletter ArchiveNewslettersVolume 21Issue 22Sixth Circuit Rules in Favor of NLRB in Saginaw Chippewa Suit

On July 1, 2015, the US Appeals Court for the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”)  regarding a labor dispute involving the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan (“Chippewa”) and the tribe’s operation of the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort.

The case involves an employee who attempted to organize and promote union membership among her peers at the casino. The Chippewa, however, maintain a strict “no-solicitation” policy prohibiting such activities by its casino employees. After repeated warnings to the employee, casino management terminated the individual’s employment with the casino. The individual thereafter filed a dispute with the NLRB, claiming that the Chippewa’s no-solicitation policy violated federal labor law. An NLRB adjudication found in favor of the former employee.

In its appeal to the Sixth Circuit, the Chippewa argued that the NLRB did not have jurisdiction over the tribe, as the tribe had specific treaty rights to exclude non-members from their reservation land and has inherent sovereign rights to govern activities on its land. The treaty and sovereign rights, as argued by the tribe, extend to the ability for the Chippewa to terminate the employment of non-members who violate tribal labor policies. In response, the NLRB argued that it enforces a federal law of general applicability and that the treaty rights cited by the tribe did not specifically extend to labor relations policy. In addition, the NLRB claimed that Congress had not expressed an intent to carve out an exception to federal labor law for Native American tribes.

In its ruling, the court agreed that the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), the federal law that governs the NLRB and requires employers to allow employees to organize under certain circumstances, should not apply to the Chippewa because the law would violate their inherent sovereign rights. However, although the court heavily criticized its recent ruling in a similar case involving the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, finding that the review standards used in the case “overly constrains tribal sovereignty, fails to respect the historic deference that the Supreme Court has given to considerations of tribal sovereignty in the absence of congressional intent to the contrary, and inconsistent with...Supreme Court directives,” the court ultimately held that it was “bound to conclude that the NLRA applies to the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort, and that the [NLRB] has jurisdiction over the present dispute.” Thus, the court affirmed the previous finding that the Chippewa were bound to comply with the NLRA due to its past holdings despite its disagreement with those rulings.

The Sixth Circuit ruling enforces the NLRB’s ruling and declined the Chippewa’s petition for review of the decision.



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