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Supreme Court Makes It Easier for Companies to Sue Striking Workers

Issue 280

A recent Supreme Court ruling opened the door to future attacks on striking workers.

Steven Wishnia Jun 15, 2023

Supreme Court decision June 1 has made it easier for employers to sue striking workers for alleged property damage.

The Court ruled 8-1 that when Teamster truck drivers at the Glacier Northwest concrete company in Seattle walked out in the middle of a shift in 2017 and left their trucks running, they failed to take “reasonable precautions” to avoid destroying the employer’s ­property. Company staff had to dump several loads of concrete before it would harden inside the trucks.

On one level, the case was about drawing the line between “incidental” and intentional damage: Cheese spoiling during a strike has been deemed acceptable, but not leaving molten steel in a vat that can only be safely emptied by skilled workers. But the decision also weakens a 1959 precedent, San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, that if workers have an “arguable” case their conduct was protected by federal labor law, the National Labor ­Relations Board has to rule on it before the employer can sue the union in state court, because the Board has “exclusive competence” in labor law.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s majority opinion held that Glacier could sue Teamsters Local 174 because the drivers’ abandoning the loaded trucks was not ­“arguably” protected. She dismissed the union’s claims that it had scheduled the strike so it wouldn’t happen on a day when a building’s foundation was being poured, and that when union agents told the drivers to “leave the fuckers running,” it was so the concrete wouldn’t harden for several hours. 

The decision was bad for unions, but not as bad as it could have been.

“Far from taking reasonable precautions to mitigate foreseeable danger to Glacier’s property, the Union executed the strike in a manner designed to compromise the safety of Glacier’s trucks and ­destroy its concrete,” Barrett wrote.

“The political hacks at the Supreme Court have again voted in favor of corporations over working people,” Teamsters General President Sean M. O’Brien responded in a statement, although, he added, “American workers must remember that their right to strike has not been taken away.”

The decision was bad for unions, but not as bad as it could have been. Justice Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion joined by Neil Gorsuch, invited challenges to the Garmon decision, calling it an “oddity” that let the NLRB pre-empt state courts. Justice Samuel Alito said the strikers had obviously intentionally destroyed property. There was some speculation that justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor joining the majority was a compromise to prevent Thomas and Alito from shaping the decision. 

The decision sends the case back to the Washington state courts.

“When the facts are revealed on remand, it will be clear the union acted properly and the truck drivers’ strike was protected by federal law,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the court then relied on unfounded allegations in the employer’s complaint that the union intended to damage the cement trucks when it called the strike.”

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, dissenting, said the majority had based its judgment entirely on the employer’s ­allegations while ignoring NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo’s accusation that Glacier interfered with protected strike conduct when it disciplined the drivers.

That, she said, should have settled the issue about whether the drivers’ conduct was arguably protected. The Court’s majority, she said, had failed “to heed Congress’s intent with respect to the Board’s primary role in adjudicating ­labor ­disputes.”

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