Supreme Court Rules Employer Can Sue Union for Intentional Damage During Strike

Supreme Court Rules Employer Can Sue Union for Intentional Damage During Strike

On June 1, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled — in a near unanimous 8-1 opinion — that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) doesn’t preempt an employer’s state law claim that a union intentionally destroyed the employer’s property during a strike. This is a win for employers who may now have some recourse to protect and recover the value of property destroyed during labor disputes (Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. Teamsters (US 21-1449 6/1/23)).

Glacier Northwest sells ready-mix concrete in the state of Washington — but each batch must be mixed to the customer’s specifications. After Glacier combines the raw ingredients — cement, sand, aggregate, admixture and water — it transfers the resulting concrete into trucks for delivery. The ready-mix trucks use rotating drums to slow the concrete from hardening, which can preserve the concrete for a limited time, but if it remains in the drum for too long, it will harden and significantly damage the truck.

For Glacier’s truck drivers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174 is the exclusive bargaining representative. After their collective bargaining agreement expired, negotiations on a new deal didn’t go well. Tensions came to a head, and the union signaled a strike when it knew that Glacier was in the process of mixing substantial amounts of concrete, loading batches into ready-mix trucks and making deliveries. Although Glacier instructed the drivers to finish deliveries in progress, the union directed them to ignore the instructions — at least 16 drivers returned with fully loaded trucks. Some drivers notified Glacier of their return and took steps to protect their trucks, but at least nine drivers abandoned their trucks without a word to anyone.

Glacier had to act fast, needing to identify which trucks had concrete in them, how close it was to hardening, and where to dump the concrete in an environmentally safe manner. Over the course of five hours, Glacier managed to dump the concrete and prevent damage to the trucks, but the concrete hardened and became useless.

Glacier sued the union for damages under Washington state law alleging the union intentionally destroyed the company’s concrete. The union moved to dismiss, arguing that because the damage occurred during a strike, the circumstances fall under the scope of the NLRA — the federal law that protects employees’ right to unionize and strike, and prohibits employers from engaging in unfair labor practices. As such, the union argued that the NLRA preempted Glacier’s state law claims, and the dispute should have ultimately been brought before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), not a court. The Washington Supreme Court agreed; however, the U.S. Supreme Court saw things differently.

Generally, if there’s a conflict between federal and state law, federal law applies, i.e., it “preempts” the state law. Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the NLRA preempts state law when the two only “arguably” conflict, meaning it’s difficult for employers to bring claims against unions for property damage during labor disputes. However, while the NLRA protects employees’ right to strike, that right is not absolute. Under federal law, the NLRA doesn’t protect strikers who “fail to take reasonable precautions to protect their employer’s property from foreseeable, aggravated and imminent danger due to the sudden cessation of work.”

Here, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the union didn’t take reasonable precautions to protect Glacier’s property. The union knew the time-sensitive circumstances of concrete mixing and loading yet decided to call a strike when it knew Glacier was in the middle of batching concrete and loading it into trucks for delivery. The union could have called the strike before the concrete was mixed and loaded. When the strike was underway, the union didn’t alert Glacier that the trucks were returned, nor did it instruct the drivers to follow Glacier’s instructions to facilitate safe transfer. Far from taking reasonable precautions, the Supreme Court noted, the union executed the strike in a manner “designed to compromise the safety of Glacier’s tricks and destroy its concrete.” The NLRA doesn’t protect such conduct.

The union argued that NLRA protection isn’t lost when a strike commences at a time when the loss of perishable products is foreseeable (citing cases involving the loss of perishable food products). However, the court noted that the union went beyond that — given the lifespan of wet concrete, Glacier could not batch it until a truck was ready to take it. As the Court writes, “So by reporting for duty and pretending as if they would deliver the concrete, the driver prompted the creation of the perishable product.”

The union also argued that it took reasonable precautions when the drivers returned the trucks to Glacier’s facility and left the drums rotating, but the Supreme Court said that “refraining from stealing an employer’s vehicles does not demonstrate that one took reasonable precautions to protect them.”

The Court concluded that because the union took affirmative steps to endanger Glacier’s property rather than reasonable precautions to mitigate that risk, the NLRA does not “arguably protect” its conduct. The case has been sent back to state court.

The court’s ruling clarifies that claims of intentional destruction of property by unions during labor disputes isn’t “arguably protected” by the NLRA, which may allow employers a way to recover the value of property destroyed during strikes.

James W. Ward, Employment Law Subject Matter Expert/Legal Writer and Editor

CalChamber members can read more about the National Labor Relations Act in the HR Library. Not a member? Learn how to power your business with a CalChamber membership.

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