Saginaw Chippewa employees defeat union bid

Gale Courey Toensing
12/31/07

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - Less than a month after dealers at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut voted by a wide margin to form a United Auto Workers union, workers at the Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort in Michigan voted by more than 2 to 1 against forming a Teamsters union under federal law.

The housekeeping staff at the Saginaw Chippewa-owned resort casino voted 192 - 88 against unionization Dec. 21. Almost all of the eligible voters in the full- and part-time housekeeping staff participated in the vote.

Ed Morin, business agent for Teamsters Local 486, promised to continue the effort to unionize.

''They waxed us pretty good [but] we're not walking away from it,'' Morin told the local Morning Sun newspaper.

Tribal council member Michele Stanley said the vote shows that the tribe's employees ''trust in the leadership to do a good job. I went to a lot of meetings with the employees and listened.'' She told the Morning Sun that employees talked about issues that need to be addressed.

''Now we know what the problems are and we can deal with them,'' Stanley said.

The Teamsters have been trying to organize Soaring Eagle casino workers for more than a year. The vote there was the first time its workers voted on a union.

At Foxwoods, which is owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, dealers voted 1,289 to 852 Nov. 24 in favor of forming a United Auto Workers union. That election is believed to be the first National Labor Relations Board-supervised union election at a tribal casino. The UAW had worked for more than six months to organize employees before the vote.

During that time, the tribe argued that its tribal sovereignty prevents the NLRB from asserting jurisdiction over the casino on reservation land. Following the union's successful vote, the tribe filed objections with the NLRB and promised to take its jurisdiction argument to the courts, an act that ultimately may lead to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Mashantucket Pequot leadership had encouraged the UAW and employees to submit their petition for a union vote under the tribe's own labor laws, which were enacted last summer as workers were organizing.

The Saginaw Chippewas have adopted a tribal labor ordinance that essentially outlaws union activity on tribal lands, according to the Morning Sun. Morin said he has filed an unfair labor practice charge over the ordinance and expects to keep challenging it.

The NLRB did not apply its laws to tribal casinos over the past 30 years, but last February the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that a casino owned and operated on tribal land by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians was subject to the National Labor Relations Act.

The San Manuel argued that casino revenues supported its government services to tribal members and that the NLRA would violate its sovereignty under federal law and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Ironically, the case began with a dispute between two unions: employees had already formed a union under tribal laws when another union challenged the tribe for allegedly denying it the same access to employees.

The Foxwoods and Soaring Eagle union votes were the first in what tribal leaders expect to be a wave of union efforts to organize the tribal gaming industry's 670,000 employees and annual revenues of almost $26 billion.

Both the UAW in Connecticut and the Teamsters in Michigan promised to continue their organizing efforts.

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