In a landmark decision on Thursday, the United States Supreme Court established a new definition concerning limits on the right to strike under federal labor law.
The case, Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local Union 174, focused on whether an employer could legally sue its employees’ union under state law for demonstrable damages resulting from a strike.
The court’s ruling departs from the traditional application of federal labor law, which the Teamsters said was “settled law.”
The case involved a group of concrete mixer drivers employed by Glacier Northwest, which operates in South Seattle and other places in Washington state. On the day of the strike, several drivers showed up for work and allowed the company to load the trucks they were driving with concrete. However, the drivers then returned their trucks to Glacier’s headquarters and walked off the job, leaving the concrete to set into stone in the trucks. It cost Glacier Northwest an enormous sum to safely and legally dispose of it.
Glacier Northwest then filed a lawsuit against the Teamsters for what it claimed was the “tortious destruction” of its property—the spoiled concrete—during a strike.
The Washington Supreme Court had dismissed the case, citing the principle of “Garmon preemption,” which generally prohibits the application of state law to labor disputes covered by the National Labor Relations Act.
However, the Supreme Court’s decision in Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters introduced a new interpretation of the Garmon preemption doctrine.
Writing for the majority, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Brett Kavanaugh, argued that the Teamsters’ strike was not protected by the National Labor Relations Act and, therefore, Glacier had the right to sue the union for damages in state court.
The decision was 8 to 1, with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson dissenting. Jackson’s dissenting opinion voiced concern that the court’s ruling had expanded the scope of Garmon preemption beyond its intended purpose, potentially undermining the protections afforded to workers under federal labor law. This was Brown Jackson’s first solo dissent with the court.
As a result of the Supreme Court decision, the case will be sent b ack to the state court for further proceedings. The ruling could have significant implications for future labor disputes, as it establishes a broader framework for determining the limits on the right to strike under federal labor law.
Lawyers for the Teamsters said this changes nothing:
“Although we’re disappointed in today’s result, the Court’s opinion leaves intact both the federally protected right to strike and the basic framework for determining when labor disputes should be decided by the National Labor Relations Board instead of state courts. First, the Court rejected Glacier’s attempt to effectively overturn the 1959 decision in Garmon, which says that federal labor law preempts state lawsuits that challenge conduct even arguably protected by the NLRA. Second, the Court rejected Glacier’s attempt to adopt a novel subjective test that would have stripped strikes of protections whenever strikers intend to cause employers economic harm; it instead maintained current law, which strips federal protections for strikers only when they stop work without taking objectively reasonable precautions to avoid foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent harm to employer property. Third, the National Labor Relations Board maintains its primary role in deciding the actual facts of labor disputes and whether, under the actual facts, federal labor law protects strikers and their strikes.
“At the end of the day, nothing in this decision will stop workers from exercising their federally protected rights to strike when necessary to achieve better wages, benefits, and working conditions. In this particular case, Glacier has found a way to prolong its meritless lawsuit by artfully pleading allegations the Court today found sufficient to get past a motion to dismiss. But we’re confident, based on the extensive record developed in this case by the Labor Board from January through March 2023, that the Board will find Teamsters Local 174’s strike in this case was protected based on the actual facts, not just Glacier’s allegations.”
Photo credit: Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons