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Labor laws affect tribal casinos, board rules

HARTFORD -- Federal labor laws apply to employees at tribal casinos even if they are on reservations, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled.

Rejecting the argument that the federal government lacks jurisdiction when a casino is on an Indian reservation, the board issued a final ruling last week in a case in which a union had filed a complaint against San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino in Southern California.

Union officials, who did not return calls for comment yesterday, had filed a complaint because another union had been allowed to organize casino workers while they were not. The board ordered the casino to allow the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union equal access to its property.

Mark Van Norman, president of the National Indian Gaming Association, said he expects the ruling to be challenged in federal court.

''In our view, the NLRB has flipped 30 years of decisions of law on its head," he said.

''When an agency does a dramatic about-face, reasonable people can call those agency decisions into question. We're confident that this will be tested in federal court at some point, and we're confident there's some reasonable likelihood that the decision will be overturned."

The board had declined to dismiss the union's complaint in May 2004. That ruling ended a longstanding precedent that excluded American Indian employers from federal labor laws.

Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, filed a friend-of-the-court brief because Connecticut's two casinos have more than 20,000 employees. ''American working men and women should enjoy the same fundamental rights, regardless of where they work," Blumenthal said. ''This ruling means that tribal employees may now decide for themselves if they wish to join a union."

A spokesman for San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino in Highland, Calif., did not return a call for comment.

Joann Weber, senior vice president of human resources at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, said, ''We have consistently believed that the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation is in the best position to address the needs of our employees and to continue our practice of direct and open communications between management and employees."

A message seeking comment did not receive an immediate response from Mohegan Sun, Connecticut's other casino.

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