The U.S. Court of Appeals

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued its decision in the landmark San Manuel v. NLRB case. The panel of three judges ruled unanimously that it was proper for the National Labor Relations Board to assert jurisdiction over Indian casinos. UNITE HERE, the charging party, has been represented by Davis, Cowell & Bowe in all phases of the case.

The court rejected the Tribe’s argument that the doctrine of Indian sovereignty prevented the exercise of NLRB jurisdiction. It saw sovereignty as a function of the relative interest of the tribe and of the federal (or state) government. In this case, it found the tribal interest in sovereignty was relatively weak and the federal interests were strong. The court relied primarily upon the facts that the union put before the Board: the casino caters to a mostly non-Indian clientele and employs mostly non-Indian workers. It is a large business that is like non-Indian casinos in all material respects. The court stated that it recognized that there were some governmental attributes to the establishment of the casino, because the negotiation of the compact with the State of California and the adoption of the Tribal Labor Relations Ordinance were governmental acts, but concluded that nevertheless, “operation of a casino is not a traditional attribute of self-government” and that “impairment of tribal sovereignty is negligible in this context, as the Tribe’s activity was primarily commercial and its enactment of labor legislation and its execution of a gaming compact were ancillary to that commercial activity.”

The court also found “no indication that Congress intended to limit the scope of the NLRA when it enacted IGRA [Indian Gaming Regulatory Act].” There is nothing explicit in IGRA about labor relations. “This is not a case in which Congress enacted a comprehensive scheme governing labor relations at Indian casinos, and that the Board is out to expand its jurisdiction into that field.”