Native American Reservations Win Case Permitting Right to Work Laws

In a precedent-setting 9-1 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has upheld the sovereign right of Native American reservations to pass Right to Work laws to protect workers from being forced to pay union dues.  The ruling announced today advances the Nat’l Right to Work Legal Def. Fdn.’s battle to protect Right to Work laws around the country. The decision affirms that the 300 Native American reservations across America may pass Right to Work laws to limit forced unionism. Attracted to growing economies, union organizers have made increasing efforts in recent years to unionize companies on reservations. This ruling clears the path for tribal governments to act without interference from the federal government.

“Not only is this a tremendous victory for Native American workers and reservations around the country, but also for the Right to Work movement,” said Stefan Gleason, Vice President of NRTWLDF, which provided free legal aid to the Pueblo in the case. “In addition to preserving individual rights, Right to Work laws will help to bring new business and economic growth to these long-impoverished regions.”

The case arose when the tribal council of the Pueblo of San Juan passed a Right to Work ordinance that gave workers the right not to join and not to financially support a union as a job condition. Union bosses at the Western Council of Indus. Workers Local 1385 then filed unfair labor charges with the Nat’l Labor Relations Bd. against an employer operating on the Pueblo.  The Clinton NLRB’s Gen. Counsel brought the full force of the federal government down on the tribe. NLRB filed for a preliminary injunction in early 1998 in the U.S. Dist. Court for New Mexico to crush the Pueblo’s Right to Work law. After losing completely at the trial court, the federal government lost again on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals. And, after the ruling of the rare en banc court, the NLRB has now lost a third time. In affirming the Dist. Court’s ruling, the appellate court stated, “The legislative enactment of the Pueblo’s right-to-work ordinance was also clearly an exercise of sovereign authority over economic transactions on the reservation.”

Section 14(b) of the Nat’l Labor Relations Act affirmed that states and territories may pass laws which protect employees from forced unionism imposed by federal law. Thus, 22 states have passed highly popular Right to Work laws. While other New Mexico unionized workers can still be fired for not paying union dues because the state has not enacted such a law, the San Juan Pueblo passed its Right to Work provision in November 1996.  [NRTWLDF 1/15/02]