In blow to unions, Supreme Court rules company can pursue strike damage claim


WASHINGTON — In a loss for organized labor, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday in favor of a Washington state concrete company seeking to revive a lawsuit against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters that claims a strike hurt its product.

The 8-1 ruling, written by Judge Amy Coney Barrett, means the company, Glacier Northwest Inc., can sue the union in state court over an August 2017 strike in which drivers walked out of their work, leaving wet concrete inside them. trucks. The company claims the association is responsible for what it says is intentional damage to its product.

Barrett, one of the court’s six conservatives, wrote that a state court erred in dismissing the claims so early in the proceedings based on concerns that the claims ran afoul of the National Labor Relations Act, a federal law that protects the activity of trade unions.

“Because the union took affirmative action to endanger Glacier’s property and did not take reasonable precautions to mitigate that danger, the NLRA arguably did not protect its conduct,” Barrett wrote.

Organized labor advocates had expressed concern that a ruling in favor of the company could stifle strike action by opening unions to claims for damages for a wide variety of potential damages that employers may face as a result of such activities.

Liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented, saying the ruling “risks eroding the right to strike”. Jackson’s two liberal colleagues, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, joined the court’s majority of conservative justices.

Jackson pointed out that the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint after the state court ruling, accusing the company of unfair labor practices and saying the drivers’ actions were “undoubtedly protected.”

By ruling in favor of the company, the court “steps into that conflict by proceeding to rule on the propriety of the union’s strike activity,” even though it is not the best place to weigh the facts, he wrote.

“This case is Exhibit A as to why the board — and not the courts — should normally make the first crack at resolving contentious, fact-bound labor disputes of this nature,” he added.

The dispute centers on an incident in which members of Teamsters Local 174 went on strike after negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement were scrapped.

When the truck drivers walked off the job, the company says, some of the concrete already delivered became useless. Drivers were returning trucks to company facilities, some of which were partially or fully loaded. As a result of the strike, concrete was left in the trucks and had to be removed to harden and then break up before it could be disposed of, the company says.

The union says when workers returned the trucks, the cement was wet and that they left the drums on the trucks spinning, meaning it wouldn’t set immediately. It was the company’s decision to remove the concrete and then break it up once it hardened, the association says.

Glacier says it lost $100,000 as a result of failing to fulfill a contract on the day of the strike, and is also seeking additional damages. The company says it was able to do the scheduled work next week.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled for the union in December 2021, saying any loss of concrete was “incidental to a strike arguably protected by federal law.”

Noel Francisco, an attorney for the company, said Thursday’s ruling “vindicates the longstanding principle that federal law does not protect unions from tort when they intentionally destroy an employer’s property.”

Sean O’Brien, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, criticized the ruling, calling the justices “political hacks” and saying the court “once again voted in favor of the companies over the workers” overturning longstanding precedent.

“Make no mistake – this decision is about giving companies more power to cut workers if there is any attempt to stand up to a growing system of corruption,” he said.

Despite the tough rhetoric, Charlotte Garden, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School who specializes in labor law, said the decision is “not as bad as it could have been” for organized labor because it does not directly threaten the right to strike. .

However, he added, it leaves open the possibility that “unions could be on the hook for lost product attributable to things the employer did after the union knew it was going to strike.”

For example, a union could be liable for a restaurant’s loss of perishable food as a result of a strike if the employer didn’t know about the impending action at the time of the strike, but the workers did, Garden said.

Business interests that often conflict with organized labor have been highly critical of the labor council in the past. The Supreme Court’s conservative majority has ruled against unions several times in recent years, including a 2018 case in which the court said public sector workers who choose not to join unions cannot be forced to pay a share of union dues contributions to cover the cost of negotiated contracts.

The number of strikes has increased amid renewed interest in some sectors about the protections union jobs can offer.

The company was backed by business and anti-union groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which said in a brief statement that the state court’s finding that the intentional destruction of property could be considered protected activity conflicts with US Supreme Court precedent.

Various labor groups and unions supported the Teamsters.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here