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

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

The 8-1 decision, written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, means the company, Glacier Northwest Inc., can pursue a lawsuit against the union in state court over an August 2017 strike in which drivers walked off the job, leaving wet concrete in their trucks. The company claims the union is liable for what it says was intentional damage to its product.

Barrett, one of the court’s six conservatives, wrote that a state court was wrong to dismiss the claims at such an early stage in proceedings based on its concern that the claims conflicted with the National Labor Relations Act, a federal law that protects union activity.

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

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

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

By ruling in favor of the company, the court “inserts itself into this conflict, proceeding to opine on the propriety of the union’s strike activity,” despite not being the best place to weigh the facts, she wrote.

The dispute centers on an incident in which members of Teamsters Local 174 went on strike after negotiations broke down over a new collective bargaining agreement.

When truck drivers walked off the job, the company says, some of the concrete already being delivered was rendered useless. Drivers returned trucks to the company’s facility, some of which had partial or full loads on board. As a result of the strike, concrete was left in the trucks and had to be removed to harden and then be broken up before it could be disposed of, the company says.

The union says that when the workers returned the trucks, the cement was wet, and that they left the drums on the trucks rotating, meaning it would not immediately congeal. It was the company’s decision to remove the concrete and then break it up once it hardened, the union says.

Glacier says it lost $100,000 as a result of failing to fulfill a contract on the day of the strike, and it also claims additional damages. The company says it was able to do the previously scheduled work the following 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, the company’s lawyer, said Thursday’s ruling “vindicates the long-standing principle that federal law does not shield labor unions from tort liability when they intentionally destroy an employer’s property.”

Sean O’Brien, the general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, criticized the decision, referring to the justices as “political hacks” and saying the court had “again voted in favor of corporations over working people” by throwing out longstanding precedent.

Addendum: Some commentators have suggested that the reason Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the conservative majority in this decision to prevent a more conservative ruling which would deal harsher blows to protections of strikes.

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NBC News

Organizations: Supreme Court Teamsters National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) 

People: Amy Coney Barrett Ketanji Brown Jackson Elena Kagan Sonia Sotomayor Noel Francisco Sean O'Brien 

Tags: Unions Strike Labor National Labor Relations Act Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters 

Type: Headlines