Vice President, Labor Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
June 06, 2023
Fill me in: In January, we examined a pending case at the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) that presented an important legal issue regarding liability in labor disputes. The case, Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, addressed the question of whether the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) preempts a state tort claim against a labor union for intentionally destroying an employer’s property during such a dispute.
After considering the case, the Court on June 1 decisively ruled against the union and held that it can be sued for property damage notwithstanding the NLRA.
In the court’s 8-1 decision, Justice Amy Coney Barrett reviewed the facts of the case. The company involved, Glacier Northwest (Glacier), sells and delivers ready-mix concrete for construction projects in Washington State, and it employs about 80-90 drivers to deliver the concrete. The drivers are represented by International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Local 174.
In August 2017, as the union and the company were negotiating a new contract, the union called for a work stoppage after the company had begun to prepare and deliver a large order. As part of the work stoppage, union officials directed drivers to ignore orders to complete their deliveries, and at least 16 drivers returned to the company’s mixing facility with their trucks full of concrete, nine of whom walked away “without a word to anyone.”
In abandoning their delivery trucks, the drivers caused the company to waste hundreds of cubic yards of concrete that had already been mixed for delivery, so Glacier sued the union for damages in state court. In its lawsuit, Glacier alleged that Local 174 intentionally waited until the concrete trucks were fully loaded for deliveries and timed the work stoppage to ensure the destruction of company property. When the case reached the Washington Supreme Court, it ruled against Glacier’s claims because the work stoppage was “arguably protected” by the NLRA, which typically preempts state law.
The verdict: Writing for SCOTUS, Barrett observed that the National Labor Relations Board “has long taken the position—which the parties accept—that the NLRA does not shield strikers who fail to take ‘reasonable precautions’ to protect their employer’s property from foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent danger due to the sudden cessation of work.”
Rather than take reasonable protections, Barrett noted that the union timed the strike in a manner designed to risk Glacier’s equipment and destroy its concrete, and that risk was “both foreseeable and serious.” Moreover, she continued, “[b]y 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.” Barrett concluded that while the NLRA protects the right to strike, “this right is not absolute,” and “[b]ecause the Union took affirmative steps to endanger Glacier’s property rather than reasonable precautions to mitigate that risk, the NLRA does not arguably protect its conduct.”
The U.S. Chamber filed a merit-stage amicus brief at the Supreme Court supporting this result. Allowing unions to treat intentional property damage as a bargaining “strategy” would have encouraged its use and undermined the industrial peace that the NLRA is tended to further.
Bottom line: The Glacier Northwest ruling offers an important protection for employers facing destructive union behavior. If taken too far, such behavior may come at a steep price for the union.