On June 1, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered an 8-1 opinion that limits the protections available to unions for damages caused during a strike. In Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local Union 174, the Court considered whether the employer could sue a union under state law for damages resulting from a strike. The ruling, authored by Justice Barrett and supported by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, and Kavanaugh, allowed an employer to pursue a claim for damages against a union.
The case involved concrete mixer drivers who participated in a strike. While they initially allowed Glacier to load their trucks with concrete, the drivers eventually drove the trucks back to the company’s headquarters and walked off the job. This led to difficulties in concrete delivery, causing some of the concrete to harden and resulting in financial losses for Glacier. Consequently, the company filed a lawsuit against the union, alleging “tortious destruction” of its property.
Initially, the Washington Supreme Court dismissed the case, asserting that state tort law was not applicable to a labor dispute that potentially fell under the exclusive jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and held that the employer had the right to sue the union for damages in a state court. The majority opinion hinged on whether the Teamsters union had taken “reasonable precautions” to prevent “foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent danger due to the sudden cessation of work.” The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has long held that unions that fail to take “reasonable precautions” may not enjoy protection from the NLRA when strikes cause damages to goods or property.
Justices Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch supported the outcome but offered different lines of reasoning. Alito would have let the tort suit proceed based only on an allegation of “intentional damage,” while Thomas and Gorsuch urged the court to reconsider the entire concept of preemption under the NLRA. Justice Jackson issued the sole dissenting opinion, criticizing the majority for disregarding the NLRB’s investigation and arguing that the strike might arguably be protected. Jackson contended that the NLRB should have the opportunity to address the issue, and the majority’s decision encroached upon its jurisdiction over labor disputes.
The implications of the Supreme Court’s decision could be significant. Some employers may see the ruling as permission to sue unions for any damages caused by strike activity. Unions may also be discouraged from pursuing strikes with the increased risk of liability.