Navajo Lose Ground on Labor Case

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The Navajo Nation lost some ground in its quest to ensure that employers on Navajo land adhere to tribal laws requiring Navajo preference in hiring.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a ruling last week, said the tribe has no place in a case involving two tribal members who claim they were fired "without just cause" from the Navajo Generating station in Page, Ariz.

Dispute over the tribe's right to be involved in decisions surround the plant began in 1969, when the tribe leased the land to the plant, which is owned by six utilities and operated by the Salt River Project.

In that lease, the tribe agreed not to "directly or indirectly regulate or attempt to regulate the ... construction, maintenance or operation" of the plant.

The question since then is whether the Navajo Nation can get involved in any decision by the plant that affects its members, since the Navajo Preference in Employment Act governs how companies treat Navajos in their employ.

The Navajo Nation Supreme Court has upheld the authority of the tribe to enforce Navajo preference laws at the plant, but SRP contends that the language in the lease "extinguished all Indian uses of the covered lands."

The dispute over the fired employees began more than seven years ago when the Office of Navajo Labor Relations agreed to hear their complaints, despite an objection from SRP.

David Jordan, the Gallup attorney who represents the two employees, said the tribe's position is correct. While the 1969 lease prohibits the tribe from regulating the technical operation of the plant, it does not proscribe it from acting when injustices have been committed against tribal members, he said.

In such cases, the tribal position is that the tribe and the Office of Navajo Labor Relations have a right to step in and make sure that tribal members are treated fairly.

Another major facet of the controversy, said Jordan, is the question of what jurisdiction federal courts have over interpretation of Navajo law.

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