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Saturday, July 20, 2024 | Back issues
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Worker rights in the balance as high court sizes up truck driver walkout

A concrete company sued over property damage it suffered when a workers' strike left product to harden in mixing drums. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — Oral arguments in a labor dispute on Tuesday left the justices looking for an offramp between stifling workers’ rights to strike and saddling companies with the costs of ruined property. 

“We agree we can’t burn down the factory, right,” Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson asked. 

Behind highly technical arguments about the timing of the suit was a question that forced the justices to balance workers’ right to strike and the destruction of employers' property. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the employers were asking too much of their employees by suggesting they must protect company property when choosing to go on strike. 

“The moment I walked out on strike, I didn’t owe you a duty,” the Obama-appointed Sotomayor said. 

In the underlying case, truck drivers for the concrete company Glacier Northwest went on strike in 2017 when their union and employer could not come to a new collective bargaining agreement. Without those workers to tend to mixing drums, however, some of the trucks that were full when the strike started wound up with hardened concrete. Glacier ended up losing product and filed a state tort action against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters for intentional property damage.

Strikes by their nature are a means of pressuring employers with the economic consequences of the workers’ reluctance to do their jobs. For this case, however, the justices must decide if the product loss fell into that category or something more malicious. 

“There is certainly a distinction,” Chief Justice John Roberts said, between economic harm and destruction of property. 

Jackson suggested the line should be drawn around the workers' intent. If the employees planned their strike with the intent to cause property damage, then that would not be considered protected conduct. 

As Justice Elena Kagan pointed out, however, considering intent may endanger workers’ right to strike. 

The justices seemed most receptive to arguments from the government, which participated in arguments in favor of neither party. The government said workers start to lose their protection to go on strike when they fail to take reasonable precautions to protect employers’ property. 

When asked by Sotomayor how the court should write its opinion, Vivek Suri, assistant to the solicitor general at the Justice Department, suggested the court simply copy the government’s brief. 

The strike involved 85 truck drivers in total, and 16 trucks fully loaded with cement and various other ingredients. To keep the ready-mix concrete from being left to sit and damage the trucks, the drivers with full trucks had kept their engines running and the drums rotating before returning their trucks to Glacier Northwest.

When each of the 16 drivers of the fully loaded trucks received disciplinary letters from Glacier Northwest after the strike, the Teamsters brought an unfair labor practice charge, viewing the letters were unlawful retaliation. Moreover seven of the 16 drivers had communicated with their supervisors about the fully loaded trucks before leaving them, so Glacier Northwest rescinded nearly half of disciplinary letters.

The company then sued the union for conversion and trespassing to chattels for failing to deliver the concrete. The Teamsters argued the suit lacked jurisdiction and their conduct was protected. A trial court dismissed the claims, but an appeals court in Washington state reversed. The Washington Supreme Court then unanimously reinstated the trial court’s dismissal. The justices then took up the case in October to decide if the union is protected from claims resulting from the destruction of an employer’s property during a labor dispute. 

The Teamsters' arguments look toward the court’s precedent in San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon. The six-decade-old case set out a test for when state courts can regulate labor relations. According to the Teamsters, state courts have to wait for the National Labor Relations Board to act when an employer sues over protected conduct. 

Darin Dalmat, an attorney with Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt representing the union, argued that the drivers’ strike was protected under the law and that the harm occurred only after the concrete drums stopped turning. 

Glacier Northwest concedes that the National Labor Relations Act protects the right to engage in coordinated labor activity. In its petition, however, it says that doesn’t allow unions to intentionally destroy private property. The company argues that the Teamsters deliberately planned their strike to destroy Glacier Northwest’s property. 

Noel Francisco, an attorney with Jones Day representing Glacier Northwest, argued that the court’s precedents did not have any interest in deciding facts, and the facts of this case sided with the company. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Business, Employment

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