Looking back on it, was it wildly optimistic for organized labor to assume that a people who’d been as screwed-over as Native Americans—who’d been disrespected, slandered, lied to, disenfranchised, and systematically murdered—would automatically be sympathetic to the struggles of working men and women trying to earn a living?
The Mashantucket Pequot tribe might consider that a loaded question. They might argue that the more realistic question is: Why should they give a hoot about “white man’s law” after all the abuses they’ve suffered in the name of it—especially after being ignored for over a century while they lived in poverty and despair, and drawing attention only lately, when they found a way to make some decent money?
We’re speaking here of Indian gambling casinos and their opposition to labor unions. It’s a tricky question, with both legal and ethical ramifications. Should federal labor law (i.e., the provisions laid out in the landmark 1935 National Labor Relations Act) be the determining factor here?
Or, as the Mashantucket Pequots (who own Foxwoods Resort Casino, in Connecticut) argue, should the matter fall under the jurisdiction of tribal law, which the U.S. government has recognized since the early 19th century, and which is more or less alluded to in the U.S. Constitution? (Native Americans are specifically mentioned in Article 1, Section 2, Article 1, Section 8, and the 14th amendment of the Constitution.)
In any event, Foxwoods was an unfortunate stand-off. While organized labor has come to expect opposition from companies like Coca-Cola, General Electric, Honeywell and—the granddaddy of all anti-union campaigns—Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., it came as a disappointment (but not a total surprise) when the Indians threw up a roadblock by hiring a team of union-busters to represent them.
The decision in this matter was reached in 2007, when the NLRB ruled that federal labor law took precedence over tribal law. Foxwoods (which opened in 1992 and is the largest employer in Connecticut) was forced to comply with the NLRA and allow its employees to vote on whether or not to join a union, in this case the UAW (United Auto Workers).
After spending 14 years trying organize the resort, the UAW finally succeeded. By a 60-40 margin, 83-percent of Foxwoods’ 10,000 employees voted to become union members. In truth, as bad as things have been for organized labor over the last couple of decades, it has had a fair amount of success in the gaming industry, from Atlantic City to Las Vegas. One advantage: They can’t digitalize living, breathing blackjack dealers or have them deal cards from China (at least not yet).
People who have criticized the Foxwoods 60-40 margin for lacking a clear mandate, don’t know much about elections, union or otherwise. Mandates are rare. Consider Ronald Reagan’s win over Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election. Even though the popular vote was slightly less than 60-40, that election has been referred to ever since as a “landslide.”
What clearly hurt the Mashantucket Pequots was an earlier NLRB ruling involving the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino, in Highland, California. Indeed, the California ruling laid the groundwork for Connecticut. In the San Manuel case, the fact that only a tiny percentage of the employees and customers were members of the tribe worked against the argument for reservation jurisdiction.
The same was true at Foxwoods. Of the resort’s 10,000 employees, only about 30 were determined to be tribal members. That was a killer statistic. On the other hand, if one is determined to find good news here, at least Foxwoods wasn’t a case of Indians trying to exploit other Indians. Like any other run-of-the-mill employer, the Mashantucket Pequots were simply looking to squeeze whomever worked for them.
When people say that “It’s not about the money, it’s about the principle,” it’s usually about the money. In 2007, the casino industry generated an estimated $58 billion, with $26 billion coming from Indian casinos. Or, as Tom Hagen said to Santino Corleone, in The Godfather, “It’s business, Sonny!”
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org