WASHINGTON — In a dispute about the pressure that organized labor can exert during a strike, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday against unionized drivers who walked off the job with their trucks full of wet concrete.
The decision united liberal and conservative justices in labor’s latest loss at the high court. The lone dissenter in the case, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, said the ruling would hinder the development of labor law and “erode the right to strike.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for the majority, said the union failed to take reasonable precautions to protect the company’s concrete when the drivers went on strike. Barrett wrote that the drivers for Washington state-based Glacier Northwest quit work suddenly, putting the company’s property in “foreseeable and imminent danger.”
“The Union’s actions not only resulted in the destruction of all the concrete Glacier had prepared that day; they also posed a risk of foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent harm to Glacier’s trucks,” Barrett wrote in a decision joined by four other justices. Three more justices agreed with the outcome in the case but did not join Barrett’s opinion.
In 2018, the court’s conservative majority overturned a decades-old pro-union decision involving fees paid by government workers. More recently, the justices rejected a California regulation giving unions access to farm property so they could organize workers.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote in a separate opinion in the Washington state case that the federal National Labor Relations Act protects the right to strike, but with limits. He said it “does not protect striking employees who engage in the type of conduct alleged here.”
In her dissent, Jackson wrote: “Workers are not indentured servants, bound to continue laboring until any planned work stoppage would be as painless as possible for their master.”
This case stemmed from contract negotiations in 2017 between Glacier Northwest and the local Teamsters union, representing the drivers. When negotiations broke down, the union called for a strike. Drivers walked off the job while their trucks were full of concrete, which must be used quickly and can damage the trucks if it’s not.
Glacier says the union timed the strike to create chaos and inflict damage. Glacier not only had to dump the concrete but also pay for the wasted concrete to be broken up and hauled away.
The company sued the union in state court for intentionally damaging its property; the lawsuit was initially dismissed.
The question for the Supreme Court was about how the case should proceed. Glacier said its lawsuit in state court should not have been dismissed at the outset. The union said Glacier’s lawsuit should only be allowed to go forward in state court if the federal National Labor Relations Board first found that the union’s actions were not protected by federal law.
Barrett wrote that because the union did not take reasonable precautions to protect Glacier’s property, the trial court was wrong to think federal law required dismissing the lawsuit. 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,” Barrett wrote.
Lawyers for the union had said that in this case the drivers were instructed to be conscientious when they walked off the job, to bring their full trucks back to Glacier’s facility and to leave the trucks’ mixing drums spinning so that the concrete would not immediately begin to harden.
Barrett said that argument wasn’t persuasive. “That the drivers returned the trucks to Glacier’s facility does not do much for the Union — refraining from stealing an employer’s vehicles does not demonstrate that one took reasonable precautions to protect them,” Barrett wrote.
In a statement, Glacier Northwest’s lawyer, Noel Francisco, said the decision “vindicates the longstanding principle that federal law does not shield labor unions … when they intentionally destroy an employer’s property,”
“Our client is entitled to just compensation for its property that the union intentionally destroyed,” he said.
Darin Dalmat, a lawyer for the union, said in a statement that while the union was disappointed, “nothing in this decision will stop workers from exercising their federally protected rights to strike when necessary to achieve better wages, benefits, and working conditions.”
Dalmat said that in “this particular case, Glacier has found a way to prolong its meritless lawsuit” and get past a motion to dismiss. But, he said, he was confident that the union’s actions would ultimately be found to be protected by the NLRB.
The case is Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174, 21-1449.