Jonathan Guss

Gaming Sovereignty? A Plea for Protecting Worker’s Rights While Preserving Tribal Sovereignty

Tribally owned gaming facilities have become an increasingly popular vehicle for economic development throughout Indian Country. As an incidental consequence of this industry’s growth, many non-tribal members now come into contact with tribal-gaming enterprises as either customers or employees. Consequently, tribal gaming establishments have become a vital nexus in battles over what tribal sovereignty should entail in a modern social and economic context. Indeed, the legal framework surrounding these entities highlights a central tension within our modern-day federal Indian law regime-one that often forces tribal governments to choose between maintaining absolute sovereign self-governance on the one hand, and providing modes of economic development, such as gaming, on the other. Both state and federal authorities play a role in the often complex regulatory structure around labor relations at tribal-gaming facilities. This means that non-tribal members may take labor and employment disputes outside of tribal laws and courts-a situation that tribes regard as an incursion upon tribal sovereignty. Nonetheless, labor advocates argue that the opposite situation would give tribal employers little incentive to give fair, adequate protections to their workers.

This Comment seeks to address the tension between tribal sovereignty and workers’ rights by proposing a positive approach. In concrete terms, this approach seeks to funnel labor and employment disputes through tribal courts by strengthening tribal labor and employment laws and alternative dispute resolution systems. The positive approach represents a third way to tribal sovereignty- where tribes, much like other nation-states facing the perils of globalization, can navigate global and local power networks from a position of strength rather than remain outside of them. The positive approach can also benefit workers by creating a strong internal tribal authority to protect labor and employment rights and by fostering opportunities for tribes to settle disputes through traditional or culturally based dispute resolution practices. This approach is in stark contrast to the decidedly anti-worker positions that some tribes have recently adopted by passing right-to-work laws and waging court battles against unfavorable shifts in the law. While the positive approach has the significant drawback of curbing some traditional elements of tribal sovereignty, its chief strength is its pragmatism, in that it works within, rather than against, recent shifts in federal Indian law jurisprudence. The approach can also provide a blueprint for economic development and tribal self-governance that can successfully coexist