The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision Thursday siding with an employer that had sued a union for damages after workers went on strike, potentially opening the door to more strike-related lawsuits against unions.
In an 8-1 decision, the majority ruled that federal law does not preempt a lawsuit the employer filed against the union in state court, alleging workers had destroyed property with their work stoppage. The Supreme Court ruling strikes down a lower court’s decision and keeps alive the employer’s lawsuit against the union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
The dissent came from Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who wrote that the majority “eagerly insert[ed] itself into this conflict” rather than “modestly standing down” and that the ruling threatens to “erode the right to strike.”
Teamsters President Sean O’Brien blasted the ruling in a statement Thursday.
“Today’s shameful ruling is simply one more reminder that the American people cannot rely on their government or their courts to protect them,” O’Brien said.
The case centered on a 2017 dispute between Glacier Northwest, a ready-mix concrete company, and its unionized truck drivers who went on strike. Glacier Northwest accused the union of timing the walkout so that freshly mixed concrete would harden and be ruined — a claim that the union denied. The company filed a lawsuit in Washington state court seeking damages from the Teamsters related to the spoiled concrete.
The state’s Supreme Court had ruled that the workers’ strike was arguably protected by federal labor law and therefore the dispute should be handled by the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency that referees such conflicts. Glacier Northwest appealed that decision and fought to have its claims against the union heard in state court.
In the majority’s opinion, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative appointee of former President Donald Trump, wrote that the state Supreme Court had made a mistake by blocking the lawsuit. She said the union had failed to take “reasonable precautions” to make sure the concrete would not harden.
“In this instance, the Union’s choice to call a strike after its drivers had loaded a large amount of wet concrete into Glacier’s delivery trucks strongly suggests that it failed to take reasonable precautions to avoid foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent harm to Glacier’s property,” Barrett wrote.
Because the union endangered the company’s property,” she added, federal labor law “does not arguably protect its conduct.”
Charlotte Garden, a labor law professor at the University of Minnesota, said the decision “could have been worse” for unions. But she warned the case could open the door to more strike-related claims from employers.
“The Court’s articulation of when a union must take ‘reasonable precautions’ to protect the employer’s perishable product will mean more lawsuits against striking unions,” Garden said on Twitter.
Some progressive groups said Thursday that the majority’s decision undermines workers’ right to strike.
“It’s no coincidence that this move to kneecap workers comes in a year when they have organized in greater and greater numbers to secure safer and more equitable labor conditions,” Sarah Lipton-Lubet, president of the group Take Back the Court, said in a statement. “Given a choice between workers and wealthy corporations, the Roberts Courts will consistently side with corporate interests.”
But the decision did not strike all labor supporters as a worst-case scenario considering the court’s 6-3 conservative majority.
Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said she was pleased the decision “doesn’t change labor law and leaves the right to strike intact.”
“We shouldn’t forget why this case landed in front of the Supreme Court in the first place: because corporations are trying to shut down our right to strike,” Henry said in a statement.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.