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Labor laws don’t shield truck driver walkout, Supreme Court rules

A truck driver walkout forced the justices to confront the limits of the right to strike when such actions end up damaging company property. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court cleared the way Thursday for the concrete company Glacier Northwest to pursue damages over a truck driver walkout that left it with damaged products. 

“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,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote for the majority this morning. “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.” 

Reversing the Washington Supreme Court, Barrett remanded the case for further proceedings. 

Writing the sole dissent to Thursday’s 8-1 ruling, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said the court was failing to uphold the fundamental right to strike that has governed American labor laws. Jackson said the court’s precedents require that the National Labor Relations Board — not the court — decide if the law protects the truck drivers’ actions.

“This case is Exhibit A as to why the Board — and not the courts — should ordinarily take the first crack at resolving contentious, fact-bound labor disputes of this nature,” the Biden appointee wrote. “Because the majority’s ruling suggests otherwise, I respectfully dissent.” 

Sean M. O’Brien, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said the ruling violated precedent and handed a win to corporations.

“The political hacks at the Supreme Court have again voted in favor of corporations over working people," O’Brien said in a statement. "These corruptible justices should be ashamed of themselves for throwing out long-standing precedent and legislating from the bench."

It's a reminder, O'Brien continued, that the government will not protect workers, and that unions should step in to uphold their rights.

"Supreme Court justices are ruling on behalf of billionaires alone — the very ones they socialize with at cocktail parties and who they owe their jobs to in the first place. American workers must remember that their right to strike has not been taken away," O'Brien said. "All workers, union and nonunion alike, will forever have the right to withhold their labor. The Teamsters will strike any employer, when necessary, no matter their size or the depth of their pockets."

The strike began in 2017 after Glacier Northwest failed to settle on a new collective bargaining agreement with the workers' union. Glacier later sued the Teamsters union in state court for intentional property damage, alleging that the strike caused the company to lose product.

There were 85 truck drivers who engaged in the strike, and 16 of those drivers had trucks full of cement when the strike began. The drivers allege that the trucks full of the product were left running so their drums would continue to rotate and prevent the cement from hardening. 

Glacier nevertheless sent disciplinary letters to 16 drivers with fully loaded trucks. The Teamsters claimed the letters constituted unlawful retaliation and brought an unfair labor practice charge. Half of the disciplinary letters were retracted when some of the drivers claimed to have notified their managers about the fully loaded trucks before leaving them. 

Seeking damages over the undelivered concrete, Glacier brought counts against the union for conversion and trespassing to chattels. Glacier brought its appeal to the nation's capital after the state Supreme Court unanimously supported dismissal of the case. 

The justices were skeptical of both sides in January at oral arguments. The Teamsters pointed to precedent in the case San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, which prevents court intervention prior to action from the National Labor Relations Board. 

Glacier contended, meanwhile, that the protections for striking under the National Labor Relations Act do not extend to destruction of property. The company alleges the Teamsters intentionally planned its strike to destroy Glacier’s property. 

Barrett did not dispute that the truck drivers’ right to strike is protected under the National Labor Relations Act. She emphasized, however, that this right is not absolute. To prevent an employer’s property from becoming damaged in the strike, the ruling states, strikers have to take “reasonable precautions."

“In this instance, the Union’s choice to call a strike after its drivers had loaded a large amount of wet concrete into Glacier’s delivery trucks strongly suggests that it failed to take reasonable precautions to avoid foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent harm to Glacier’s property,” Barrett wrote. 

While the union argued it took precautions by having the drivers return the trucks to Glacier’s facilities, the court said that action was not enough. 

“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. 

Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch decided not to join Barrett’s majority opinion and instead concurred only in judgment. Alito said he agreed that Glacier’s suit was not preempted but would have decided the case in a more simple manner. 

“As the Court recognizes, they succeeded by ‘prompt[ing] the creation of the perishable product’ and then ceasing work when the concrete was in a vulnerable state,” the Bush appointee wrote. “Because this Court has long rejected the Union’s claim that this kind of conduct is protected, Garmon preemption does not apply.” 

Thomas also wrote a separate opinion to comment on the preemption claims.

“The parties here have not asked us to reconsider Garmon, nor is it necessary to do so to resolve this case,” Thomas wrote. “Nonetheless, in an appropriate case, we should carefully reexamine whether the law supports Garmon’s ‘unusual’ pre-emption regime.” 

Glacier praised the recognition that it has a right to compensation for its destroyed property.

“We’re pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision, which vindicates the longstanding principle that federal law does not shield labor unions from tort liability when they intentionally destroy an employer’s property," Noel Francisco, an attorney with Jones Day representing Glacier, said in an email. "Our client is entitled to just compensation for its property that the union intentionally destroyed.”

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Categories / Appeals, Business, Employment

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