The Supreme Court on Thursday revived a Washington concrete company’s state court lawsuit over alleged damages from a drivers’ strike, in a decision that could mean the National Labor Relations Board decides fewer disputes.
The dispute stems from a 2017 strike in which the company’s drivers, unionized with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, returned running concrete trucks to Glacier Northwest Inc. facilities and then walked off the job.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote the 8-1 opinion, which found those actions were not protected under a federal labor law because the union did not take “reasonable precautions” to prevent damages the company’s property and equipment.
If a labor action falls under the National Labor Relations Act, employers are prevented from suing in state court for damages caused by a strike.
“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,” Barrett wrote.
The company had sued in state court, arguing the union timed the strike to ruin the concrete and potentially damage the trucks. But the Washington state Supreme Court found the case should fall under NLRB jurisdiction.
The Supreme Court decision sends the case back to the state court for further proceedings.
Barrett wrote the state court could evaluate on its own whether the union’s conduct could “arguably” fall under the NLRA, which protects the lawful use of economic pressure by unions, rather than defer to the NLRB.
The Biden administration also had asked the justices to overturn the Washington court opinion, arguing that in some cases courts should be allowed to decide whether disputes over damages from a strike should go to the NLRB first.
The Supreme Court opinion stated while workers have the right to withhold their labor and cannot face damages for strikes that result in the spoilage of perishable goods, the drivers’ union took actions that put it outside the protections of labor law.
Barrett wrote that the fact that the concrete was not mixed until drivers reported for work — meaning that the union effectively created the perishable goods — and that the way the union handled the strike risked ruining the trucks if the concrete hardened.
“Predictably, the company’s concrete was destroyed as a result. And though Glacier’s swift action saved its trucks in the end, the risk of harm to its equipment was both foresee- able and serious,” Barrett wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson argued the opinion could undercut the labor law and the “venerated right” to strike by giving courts the ability to decide disputes over strikes rather than the NLRB.
Jackson noted the majority of the court ignored the fact that there was an active NLRB proceeding over the strike and “eagerly inserted itself into this conflict” to substitute its judgment for the board’s.
Jackson said the majority’s approach prioritizes the courts over the board that Congress created and “threatens to impinge on the right to strike and on the orderly development of labor law.”
“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,” Jackson wrote.
Congress created the NLRB to balance when employees’ collective actions were protected and when they were meant to cause damage to an employer’s property or put people in danger, Jackson said.