U.S. Supreme Court Issues Decision On Employers’ Ability to Recover Strike Related Damages From Unions

Volume: 22 | Issue: 23
June 1, 2023

Earlier today, in the case of Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local Union No. 174, an overwhelming majority of the U.S. Supreme Court held that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does not prevent an employer from suing a union to recover damages for the intentional destruction of its property during a strike. Only one Justice, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, disagreed.

The employer, Glacier Northwest, Inc., is a ready-mix concrete company that sued Teamsters Local 174 in a Washington state court for damages it sustained when drivers engaged in a strike timed by the union to occur after numerous trucks had been loaded with highly perishable concrete. The union was able to persuade the state court to dismiss the employer’s lawsuit by arguing that federal labor law precluded the state court lawsuit.

The U.S. Supreme Court soundly rejected the union’s arguments. The Court reaffirmed that the right to strike is not absolute and that the NLRA does not shield strikers or unions who fail to take reasonable precautions to protect employer property from foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent danger due to a sudden cessation of work. The majority of Justices determined that the union’s intentional conduct was not even arguably protected by the NLRA because the union executed the strike in a manner designed to achieve harm to the employer’s property. The Court explained: “Given the lifespan of wet concrete, Glacier could not batch it until a truck was ready to take it. By reporting for duty and pretending as if they would deliver the concrete, the drivers prompted the creation of the perishable product. Then, they waited to walk off the job until the concrete was mixed and poured in the trucks. In so doing, they not only destroyed the concrete but also put Glacier’s trucks in harm’s way.”

Two Justices, Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, wrote a separate, concurring opinion to highlight the “oddity” of the labor law preemption doctrine that the union tried to hide behind, which is set forth in a case called San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon. Both Justices stated that the Supreme Court should carefully reexamine whether such an unusual doctrine is supported by the law.

The lone dissenter, Justice Jackson, disagreed with the Court’s decision. In her view, the employer’s state court lawsuit was clearly preempted by federal law because the NLRB’s General Counsel had filed an administrative complaint against the employer, alleging that it had engaged in unfair labor practices by, among other things, disciplining some of the drivers involved in the strike and filing the state court lawsuit against the union. She expressed her belief that “[t]his case is Exhibit A as to why the Board—and not the courts—should ordinarily take the first crack at resolving contentious, fact-bound labor disputes of this nature.”

It is not often that the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the limits of strike conduct. The Glacier Northwest case is an important victory for employers seeking to recover damages for a union’s intentional destruction of its property during a labor dispute.

KZA Employer Report articles are for general information only; they are not intended and should not be construed to be legal advice. Reading or replying to such articles does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In addition, because the subject matters and applicable laws discussed in Employer Report articles are often in a state of change and not always applicable to every type of business entity or organization, readers should consult with counsel before making decisions based on the same.

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