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United States Of America – On June 1, 2023, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Washington state concrete business which sued the union that represented the company’s truck drivers. The 8-1 decision overturned the lower court ruling of Glacier Northwest Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which held that Glacier is preempted by the National Labor Relations Act. With the overturn, employers are now able to swiftly sue over strikes which cause property damage; a setback for organized labor workers.
Glacier Northwest, a unit of the Japan-based Taiheiyo Cement Corporation, filed a lawsuit against a local affiliate of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters alleging that the union engaged in intentional property damage during a 2017 strike.
Glacier’s truck drivers went on strike while the mixing trucks contained concrete. Although the mixing drums were kept on to delay the concrete from hardening and damaging the trucks, the concrete ended up being unusable and was discarded, resulting in a financial loss.
In 2021, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that Glacier’s claims were preempted by the National Labor Relations Act. The Supreme Court held that the company’s concrete and financial loss was incidental to the strike, meaning that the damages caused by the union were protected under federal labor law.
Now, Justice Amy Coney Barrett states that the union’s action not only destroyed the concrete but also, “posed a risk of foreseeable, aggravated and imminent harm to Glacier’s trucks.” Since the union failed to take reasonable precautions to mitigate the risk and rather amplified the harm to Glacier’s property, Barrett claims that the National Labor Relations Act does not protect the union’s conduct.
In a 27-page dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote that the ruling is surely to cause confusion among the lower courts as to how the National Labor Relations Act should apply in future cases. Justice Jackson also believes that the right to strike may now be questioned.
The United States Supreme Court has recently been leaning towards halting the power of labor unions. In 2021, the Supreme Court justices struck down a California proposal aimed at aiding unions organize workers. In 2018, the Court held that non-members cannot be forced to pay fees to unions who represent public employees that negotiate collective bargaining agreements with employers.
Attorney Noel Francisco, who represented Glacier Northwest, stated that federal law does not shield labor unions from tort liability when “they intentionally destroy an employer’s property.” President Sean O’Brien of Teamsters said that the Supreme Court has once again “voted in favor of corporations over working people.” O’Brien went on to say that the right to strike has been guaranteed for nearly 100 years and that it is “no coincidence that this ruling is coming at a time when workers across the country are fed up and exercising their rights more and more.”
Teamsters Local Union No. 174 who conducted the strike, claims that the strike is arguably protected under federal labor law and that the loss of product did not satisfy the burden to override federal preemption. Although the Supreme Court standardly finds that labor unions can be sued in state court if they engage in violet or threatening acts, Union No. 174 argues that this exception should not be used to permit property damages claims under state law.
The Biden administration continues to urge the Supreme Court justices to reverse the lower court’s decision so that Glacier Northwest’s lawsuit may proceed.