The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear a case that union supporters fear could end up diminishing the power of workers to go on strike against their employers.
The case, Glacier Northwest Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, revolves around a 2017 labor dispute involving unionized drivers at a concrete company in Washington state. Glacier Northwest filed a lawsuit to force the union to compensate it for ready-mix concrete it claims the union destroyed intentionally by declaring a work stoppage.
Washington state’s Supreme Court ruled that the strike was arguably protected by federal labor law and that the company’s claims should therefore be dismissed, leaving the dispute under the federal National Labor Relations Board. But Glacier Northwest and conservative groups argue that federal labor law should not preempt the company’s claims and that it should be able to sue the Teamsters in state court.
Labor lawyers said a U.S. Supreme Court decision against the Teamsters could open unions up to lawsuits by employers seeking to recoup costs associated with strikes. That, in turn, would make workers more hesitant to go on strike to improve pay and working conditions, thereby weakening unions’ most powerful weapon: the ability to withhold labor.
“The real issue is whether this Supreme Court has the ability to be fair in cases involving unions.”
Sharon Block, director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, said she found it “hugely troubling” that the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case at all after a lower court said the matter should be left to the NLRB.
“We have a federal agency that is supposed to figure out these kinds of cases. They have been doing it for decades,” Block told HuffPost. “This has the potential to fundamentally alter how the [National Labor Relations Act] operates. And that doesn’t belong in state court.”
She added that a ruling in Glacier Northwest’s favor could have far-reaching implications.
“If the court ends up saying, ‘Well, sure, you can strike, but you have to strike in a way that doesn’t cause anybody any discomfort,’ then I think that’s a pretty significant rethinking of the [law],” Block said.
The conservative Supreme Court has not been friendly to labor in recent years.
In 2018, the court issued a historic ruling making the entire U.S. public sector “right to work,” allowing government employees to opt out of paying union fees even if they’re covered by a union contract. The same year, the court issued a historic decision establishing that employers can force workers to sign arbitration agreements as a condition of employment, making it harder for workers to band together as victims of wage theft or discrimination.
The court’s composition has tilted even more rightward since those rulings, following former President Donald Trump’s three appointments, which created a 6-3 conservative majority.
The ability to go on strike lies at the heart of the collective bargaining system established during the New Deal. When workers believe they are being mistreated, they can walk off the job to hurt production and force the company into a better deal at the bargaining table. Likewise, employers hold the ability to “lock out” their workers and prevent them from earning a paycheck in order to gain leverage.
Benjamin Dictor, a union-side labor attorney, said a broad ruling against the union could not only undermine the strike as a weapon but also disrupt the balance of power between labor and management as they bargain in good faith.
“A ruling that effectively disarms one party of their economic leverage while leaving the other’s intact would necessarily destroy the relative balance of power that the [law] was intended to maintain,” Dictor told HuffPost.
In the Glacier Northwest case, Teamsters Local 714 called a strike among its 90 drivers at the company while it was trying to secure a new contract. The strike began at 7 a.m. while some trucks were waiting to be loaded with ready-mix concrete and others were out making deliveries, according to a Teamsters brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sixteen trucks returned to the yard with undelivered concrete. Glacier Northwest claims the union timed its strike to spoil that product ― “intentionally destroying an employer’s property in the course of a labor dispute,” as the company put it ― since the concrete would be useless once it hardened. The company disciplined some of the striking workers and filed a lawsuit against the union.
But the Teamsters say workers didn’t intentionally destroy any concrete. “The striking drivers returned their trucks to Glacier’s yard and left them running precisely so that the concrete would not harden,” the union said. “By so doing, the strikers not only safeguarded Glacier’s trucks but they allowed the Company to use the concrete as it saw fit.”
“A ruling that effectively disarms one party of their economic leverage while leaving the other’s intact would necessarily destroy the relative balance of power.”
The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, who acts as a kind of prosecutor for labor law, ended up filing a complaint against Glacier Northwest alleging that the company violated workers’ collective bargaining rights by disciplining them over the strike and filing its lawsuit over the concrete, according to the union. That case is scheduled to have a hearing at the labor board next month.
Craig Becker, the general counsel of the AFL-CIO labor federation, which includes 58 unions, told HuffPost in a statement that Glacier Northwest has “misrepresent[ed] the facts” of the case by claiming the union destroyed concrete on purpose.
“Congress chose to protect strikes as the motor of the collective bargaining system that broadly preserves labor peace,” Becker said. “The Supreme Court should not use this case to narrow that fundamental protection.”
In 1959, the Supreme Court held that federal collective bargaining law preempts state and local regulations that might interfere with it. One expert has said the preemption doctrine when it comes to the National Labor Relations Act is “among the broadest and most robust in federal law.”
The preemption cuts both ways for unions. It can protect them from claims like the one filed by Northwest Glacier, but it also makes it much harder to pass laws at the state level that could help restore union membership in the U.S. As of last year, a mere 10.3% of workers belonged to a union, nearly half the rate of 1983, the year the government first started tracking.
Block said the court may choose to chip away at the preemption doctrine of the National Labor Relations Act but in a way that benefits only employers.
“The real issue is whether this Supreme Court has the ability to be fair in cases involving unions,” she said.