U.S. Supreme Court Holds That Employers Can Sue Unions for Damage-Causing Unprotected Strikes
- Strikes involve concerted activity and, therefore, are arguably covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which under the Garmon Doctrine usually prevents disputes concerning strikes from being litigated in state courts.
- However, a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court clarifies that when strikers fail to take "reasonable precautions" to protect their employer's property from foreseeable danger precipitated by a strike, the employer may be able to sue the union in court.
- In Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 174, the Supreme Court held that the Teamsters failed in meeting its evidentiary burden of establishing that the strike activity was arguably protected by the NLRA, noting that the right to strike is not absolute and has limitations, such as an obligation to protect an employer's property.
In Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 174, No. 21-1449 (sl. op.), the U.S. Supreme Court revisited Garmon preemption. The Court reviewed the Washington state Supreme Court's dismissal of a tort claim brought against a Teamsters union by an employer for property damage suffered as a result of a strike by its truck drivers. The Court held that because the employees' conduct took the strike outside of the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the employer could sue in court.
Glacier is in the business of selling ready-mix concrete and employs truck drivers to transport the concrete it manufactures to its customers in its specialized concrete ready-mix trucks. Glacier mixes each batch of concrete to the specifications of its customers and promptly loads the prepared concrete into its trucks, then the drivers promptly deliver it to customers. Time is of the essence in this process because concrete begins to harden immediately when it is not being mixed and is at rest. Even though the rotating drum on the ready-mix trucks slows the concrete from hardening, it does not prevent hardening if the concrete is in the drum too long. Significant damage occurs to the trucks if the concrete hardens in the drum before it is delivered.
Following the breakdown of negotiations for a renewal agreement, the Teamsters called a strike when it knew Glacier was in the midst of mixing and loading substantial batches of concrete into its ready-mix trucks for delivery. When Glacier instructed its drivers to quickly make their deliveries, the Teamsters directed the drivers to ignore Glacier's orders, and drivers who had already set out to make their deliveries returned with fully loaded trucks. Some drivers abandoned their trucks without even advising Glacier.
Glacier's emergency action enabled it to take command of the trucks and dump all of the concrete before it could harden and cause serious damage to the trucks. However, all of the dumped concrete hardened and was wasted in the makeshift bunkers Glacier had hastily constructed for the purpose of preserving the trucks.
Glacier sued the Teamsters in Washington state court for damages, alleging that the intentional destruction of its property was common law conversion and trespass to chattels. The Teamsters moved to dismiss the tort claims on the ground that they were preempted by the NLRA. The trial court dismissed, the intermediate appellate court reversed, and the Washington Supreme Court reversed the appellate court and reinstated the trial court's dismissal, opining that the loss that was the subject of the tort claims "was incidental to a strike arguably protected by federal law."
The Supreme Court reversed the Washington Supreme Court, holding that the Teamsters' conduct was beyond the protection of the NLRA and, therefore, not arguably covered thereby. Accordingly, Garmon preemption was inapplicable. In reaching its conclusion, the Court noted that the Teamsters had the burden of establishing preemption by first advancing an interpretation of the NLRA consistent with its language and not authoritatively rejected by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or the courts. This, it did. However, the Teamsters failed in meeting the second prong of the test to establish preemption, namely putting forth evidence sufficient to support a court's finding that the drivers' activities were arguably protected by the NLRA.
In finding that the Teamsters failed in meeting its evidentiary burden, the Court noted that the right to strike is not absolute and has limitations. Such limitations include, relying on NLRB case law, an obligation to protect the employer's property by taking "'reasonable precautions' to protect their employer's property from foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent danger due to the sudden cessation of work." Quite to the contrary, the Court noted, the Teamsters "executed the strike in a manner designed to compromise the safety of Glacier's trucks and destroy its concrete." Accordingly, the Teamsters' actions were not "arguably protected" by the NLRA, and the state court lawsuit for damages was not preempted.
Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett's majority opinion was joined by a concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, in which Justice Neil Gorsuch joined, and by a separate concurring opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, in which Thomas and Gorsuch also joined. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson filed a lone dissenting opinion in which she argued that in the circumstances of the case, the state court was obliged to "pause proceedings" and permit the NLRB to determine initially if the activity at issue was lawful and arguably covered by the NLRA.
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