Labor Day for Native Americans?
Section 166 of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) was intended to motivate investment in education and training for the Native American workforce. The Native American Education and Training Council (NAETC), and the Division of Indian and Native American Programs (DINAP), both under the Department of Labor, share this goal of ensuring economic self-sufficiency for indigenous people through education and workforce training.
Yet when it comes to labor relations, job opportunity, and equitable pay rates, Native Americans as a whole still have not fared so well or achieved the level of employment the WIA law intended. This is in part due to the government’s failure to provide the services intended by the law or to enforce the Workforce Investment Act as it is written. The DINAP is understaffed and the WIA is underfunded (operating below Congressionally-approved levels).
Labor regulations and opportunity have a direct bearing on quality of life for all people, but for Native Americans in this country the impact has been particularly adverse. Unemployment among Native Americans is 12.3%, more than twice the national average of 5.7% (Census 2000). The Native American population continues to have the highest poverty rate of any ethnic group in the U.S. There is also a 52% high school dropout rate for American Indians, underscoring the need for education and job training readiness.
Many complex factors have contributed to high unemployment for Native Americans. While many tribes have successfully launched business ventures on and off the reservations, and in the process have created more jobs for Native and non-Native people, outside businesses have been reluctant and/or stunted from investing on reservations for many reasons:
- fractionated tribal lands and land use systems controlled by the federal government
- unavailable or unreliable telecommunications infrastructures
- authority of tribes and OSHA over occupational safety and health
- Indian preference in employment and contracting
- authority of tribes and NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) over collective bargaining
- application of Federal employment and environmental laws on the reservations
- complex tribal relations with Congress, the Executive Branch, and States
This complex scenario has severely limited private industry job opportunities on tribal lands. Reservation job opportunities for Native Americans are often based in school, government, and health care systems – but they need not be limited to these industries. Sadly, in the private sector, racism and oppression also continue to impact Native American joblessness and underpay.
Unless something changes, Native employment conditions are likely to be more exacerbated in the future due to the growing economic pressures and the growing Native American population. For the past decade, the indigenous population has grown faster than other ethnic groups. Under the Obama Administration’s promise to strengthen tribal relations, the NAETC and DINAP are hoping for a better partnership that will bring about positive change in Native American labor relations, employment, and job training. It is up to American business owners to come around to hiring and paying all Americans equitably based on skills and fit for the job and to put aside any non-hiring or underpaying based on ethnic background or cultural diversity.