Glacier Northwest Inc v. Teamsters is seen as the latest test of union rights to court.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling lowered the bar for companies to sue unions for property damage incurred during strikes, continuing a trend of rulings against organized labor.
In an 8-1 decision on Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that blocked a lawsuit brought by a concrete seller in Glacier Northwest, Wash., against the union’s local affiliate.
The lawsuit argues that Glacier Northwest suffered losses during a 2017 strike that forced the company to discard unused product: wet concrete that could damage the trucks that carry it.
The lower court ruled that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) guaranteed workers the right to strike. But Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who represents the majority on the Supreme Court, said the NLRA’s protections have limitations.
“Because the union took affirmative action to endanger Glacier’s property, rather than taking reasonable precautions to mitigate that risk, the NLRA arguably would not protect its conduct,” she wrote in her ruling.
The decision is the latest in a string of court cases ruling in favor of companies and against labor groups.
For example, the Supreme Court has previously ruled that rules allowing union organizers to recruit on agricultural land violate employers’ rights and that unions cannot charge “agency fees” to employees who benefit from their work.
Support for unions has risen in the U.S., but membership remains well below previous highs.
“The ability to strike has been documented for almost 100 years,” said Sean O’Brien, general president of the International Brotherhood of Truckers, which represents workers in Thursday’s case. “It’s no coincidence that this ruling comes at a time when workers across the country are weary and increasingly exercising their rights.”
Thursday’s ruling arose out of a 2017 incident in which a group of truck drivers working for Glacier Northwest were involved in a stoppage when their trucks were filled with concrete.
They kept the drums spinning to prevent the concrete from hardening and damaging vehicles, but the company had to dispose of the unused product.
Glacier Northwest, a unit of Japan-based Taiheiyo Cement Corp, believes cement must be used quickly or risk damaging the equipment carrying it. It maintained that the strike was timed to facilitate vandalism of company property.
Noel Francisco, an attorney representing Glacier Northwest, said the ruling “confirms the long-standing principle that federal law does not protect unions from tort liability for willful damage to employer property.”
‼ ️ Statement from #Teamsters President Sean M. O’Brien on the Supreme Court today #glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174, which opened the door for companies to sue their employees. #1 you @TeamsterSOB 1/9 🧵… pic.twitter.com/yaGvwSXa0W
– Teamsters (@Teamsters) June 1, 2023
The Washington State Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that the concrete loss was a by-product of the strike, so the company’s claims were pre-empted under the NLRA, which upholds workers’ rights to unionize and engage in collective bargaining.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision on Thursday, with encouragement from President Joe Biden’s administration.
In a 27-page dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said the ruling could cause “considerable confusion” about the NLRA’s application in future cases and “potentially erode the right to strike.”