The Supreme Court just dealt a blow to workers

Last week, the Supreme Court dealt yet another blow to unions and working people across the country. For this week’s Closer Look, we want to tell you all about the Court’s latest decision and what it means for the future of labor in America.

In Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Court’s majority ruled in favor of Glacier Northwest, a concrete company based in the greater Seattle area. The case stems from a contract negotiation dispute that arose in 2017 between Glacier Northwest and their concrete truck drivers represented by Teamsters Local 174. After Glacier Northwest refused to meet their drivers’ demands for better pay, benefits, and job security, the workers went on strike. On August 11, 2017, drivers walked off the job after returning their trucks back to the company lot. At the time, the trucks were filled with mixed concrete, which went to waste after it was offloaded by non-striking workers.

The strike ended relatively quickly after Glacier Northwest agreed to meet the strikers’ demands, but unfortunately the drama did not end there. Four months later, Glacier Northwest sued the Teamsters union in state court over the wasted concrete. Federal labor law stipulates that striking workers must take “reasonable precautions” to mitigate the risk of property damage to their employer in the event of a strike. In their suit, Glacier Northwest alleges that the strikers did not take the appropriate precautions, and timed the onset of their strike to deliberately cause the company financial damage.

The Washington State Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling dismissing the case, holding that it must be referred to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Under current law, when legal disputes arise between unions and employers involving activity “arguably” protected under federal labor law, the NLRB must first decide whether the activity was protected. If the NLRB decides the activity was not protected by federal labor law, then the case can be pursued in state court; conversely, if the agency decides the activity was protected, then the road ends there, unless a federal court overrules the NLRB.

But in October 2022, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Glacier Northwest’s appeal even though the case is still under review by the NLRB. The Court ultimately decided, by an 8-1 vote, that Glacier Northwest has the right to sue Teamsters Local 174 in Washington state court even before a decision is made by the NLRB. Essentially, the court ruled in Glacier that workers cannot call surprise strikes that risk damage to their company’s property if previous actions of theirs created the risk of that damage. In doing so, the Court effectively acted as a court of first impression, an action that clashed with the majority’s own recognition that it is a “court of review, not of first view.”

This ruling undermines the precedent that the NLRB should be the deciding voice in whether a lawsuit is allowable, and therefore, as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson highlighted in her lone dissent, “erode[s] the right to strike.” The ruling essentially permits employers and unions to sue in state court before the NLRB issues its own ruling as to whether the strike was protected under federal law. This may lead to “duplicative litigation” where a union might win a decision by the NLRB and lose the same decision in state court (often with elected judges who have no labor law experience, but do have a vested interest in keeping their community’s businesses on their side in advance of their next election). This will inevitably create confusing and expensive messes that will require the involvement of higher courts, which will drain unions’ finances along the way.

The end result of the ruling is that unions in some cases will be less likely to strike because they will now be scared of facing the same fate as Teamsters Local 174. Employers will be emboldened to take legal action against striking workers if they think they can make the case that strikers deliberately caused them property damage and, further, that state courts will be sympathetic to their pleas. The definition of “property damage” itself may be up for debate too – for example, can employers successfully argue that strikers caused intellectual property damage with their action? (Let’s not forget that the whole point of a strike is to cause employers economic suffering in order to drive them to come to the bargaining table and negotiate in good faith.) In short, unions may now be less inclined to strike if the decision ends up costing them more legal headaches – not to mention legal fees – than anything else.

There’s no sugarcoating it: workers clearly can’t rely on the Supreme Court to advance their interests. Even the few liberal justices on the court have a mixed track record on these issues, and the 8-1 split on Glacier shows that workers have few friends on the bench. With this latest ruling, the Roberts Court now has set quite the track record ruling against the interests of workers. But that doesn’t mean workers should throw in the towel. They must continue to stand up for their rights and fight for better livelihoods. And they can rest assured that the Patriotic Millionaires will stand up for the principle of workers earning enough money to participate in the economy.

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