Employers Gain Rights to Sue Under Supreme Court Ruling — National Labor Relations Act Does Not Protect Strikers’ Destruction of Property

Strike and picketing activity have historically enjoyed broad protection under labor law.  This has often left employers suffering property or other damage as a result of strikes or picketing without a meaningful remedy.  A new U.S. Supreme Court ruling stands to change that.  

Employers may sue unions when members fail to take “reasonable precautions” to protect their employer’s property, even when the union members are engaged in a strike. On June 1, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled in Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174 (No. 21–1449), that an employer can bring state law claims for damages if union members engage in actions that expose their employer’s property to “foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent danger due to the sudden cessation of work.”

What Led to This Case? 

Glacier is a ready-mix concrete company. Ready-mix concrete must be specifically prepared to a customer’s specifications and batched into trucks shortly after it is prepared. Even though ready-mix can be temporarily kept from hardening in rotating drums on the trucks, it will eventually harden. If ready-mix hardens in a truck, it renders the concrete unusable and will severely damage the truck. 

After negotiations between Glacier and the union representing its employees in Washington State failed to reach an agreement, the members went on strike. According to Glacier’s complaint in state court, this strike was specifically timed to be after concrete had been mixed and batched into trucks. Several truck drivers returned to the yard with trucks full of concrete and told Glacier of the strike, while several other drivers simply returned to the yard and left the trucks. Because the concrete could not be delivered, it hardened and was worthless. Glacier contends that the members “put Glacier’s trucks in harm’s way” and created the loss of the concrete. Glacier was able to prevent damage to the trucks, but was forced to take extraordinary measures to dispose of the destroyed concrete. 

What Were the Legal Issues?  

If an activity – such as striking – is “arguably subject” to the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), the state and even federal courts are “preempted” from regulating conduct that the NLRA “protects, prohibits, or arguably protects or prohibits.” Instead, state and federal courts must defer to the National Labor Relations Board, and parties cannot sue in state or federal court. This legal doctrine is called “Garmon preemption,” often taking away the protection of generally applicable state law from situations involving labor activity. 

Here, both parties agreed that employees generally have a right to strike. The union argued that because employees have the right to strike and striking is obviously protected by the Act, Glacier could not sue in state court for their damages. The Court disagreed and ruled that, although employees have a right to strike, that right “is limited by the requirement that workers ‘take reasonable precautions to protect the employer’s plant, equipment, or products from foreseeable imminent danger due to sudden cessation of work.’” By choosing to engage in activity to pressure Glacier at a time known to be vulnerable for the business, after the concrete had been loaded into the trucks, the members failed to protect Glacier’s property and put Glacier’s trucks at risk. The Court ruled that Garmon preemption did not apply given the details of this situation and Glacier could sue in state court. 

What Does the Court’s Ruling Mean for Employers?  

Unions are very upset with this Supreme Court ruling.  They will be reviewing and revising their strategies, including what notice they should provide in the event they engage in strike or other protest activity. 

With the Supreme Court’s ruling the message is sent that violence and property destruction will not enjoy the same protected activity status they have previously enjoyed, even in states considered to be worker-friendly or union-friendly in terms of laws and policies.   If activities pose the risk or cause property destruction, employers now have an important weapon in their arsenal to respond to these types of activities.  The specter of detail-intensive litigation, and monetary liability for unprotected actions, presents a real risk if unions choose to pursue a path of unprotected activity. 

As always, contact your trusted AALRR counsel for more information. 

This AALRR post is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in reaching a conclusion in a particular area of law. Applicability of the legal principles discussed may differ substantially in individual situations. Receipt of this or any other AALRR post does not create an attorney-client relationship. AALRR is not responsible for inadvertent errors that may occur in the publishing process. 

© 2023 Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo

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