With the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) currently stretching union rights in every direction, earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court put up a block against unlawful strike behavior. In an 8-1 decision the high Court said an employer may sue a union if they allowed their striking members to intentionally damage company property during a strike. This would seem to be a no-brainer but not in the world of labor.
What happened in this case was the Teamsters Local 174 called a strike to start during the workday when company cement trucks were fully loaded. At the appointed time to start the strike, the drivers walked off the job leaving the trucks full of cement. The cement then “spoiled” so to speak. This in turn not only lost the value of the cement but also posed a risk of damage to the trucks carrying the cement.
Glacier Northwest, the employer, sought to recover damages from the labor union responsible. However, in the past the high Court had ruled that if the company was going to seek redress for such damages it could not go through civil court but had to go through the NLRB. San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon (1959).
To get to the Supreme Court, Glacier Northwest had to sue in state civil court for damages. Because of the precedent established in the Garmon case, the employer lost twice before their appeal to SCOTUS. Following Garmon law, the lower courts ruled this case could not be brought outside federal labor law.
Glacier Northwest appealed to the federal Court saying the NLRA cannot be used to protect a union that allowed its members to engage in intentional sabotage of company property. The union should be liable for its members (the workers) behavior because it should have taken “reasonable precautions” to protect the company’s property when the union drivers abandoned their loaded trucks to start the strike without notifying the employer and taken precautions against damage to goods and the equipment.
SCOTUS ruled that in this case and because it found that the Teamsters failed to take “even minimal precautions” this union action showed it failed in its duty to exercise “reasonable precautions”. The high Court told the NLRB that in this case the National Labor Relations Act could not be construed as protecting it under the law by forcing a complaint about property damage caused by union members to go to the pro-worker/union NLRB.
SCOTUS said this decision does not overrule the Garmon case. It did narrow its application a bit, so common sense might dictate that an employer’s civil law rights are not all pre-empted by a labor dispute and that a union is not legally released from liability for their members behavior when damaging goods and equipment during a labor dispute if they intentionally intended to ruin that property.
The immediate result of this decision is that the case is remanded back to state court for reconsideration on the issue of damages liability.
Reaction from Big Labor was of course negative as might be expected. Teamsters President Sean O’Brien called SCOTUS justices “political hacks” for this ruling. Funny, as stated above, this was a bi-partisan (8-1) decision. Liberal Justices Kagan and Sotomayor sided with the rest of the Court. Now they are too conservative also?
This case does not seem to have broad application outside of the context of union-employer relations. The NLRB sees its purview far beyond the bounds of labor unions and into non-union employer workplaces when employees engage in protected concerted activity. One wonders if under some circumstances where non-union employees damage employer property during an organizing drive or other pre-unionized situation, could the NLRB seek to protect a labor organization that may be behind the organizing and possibly responsible for allowing and encouraging the employees to sabotage product as part of an organizing drive? Kind of a stretch, but the Glacier Northwest case could give a labor organization pause knowing they might be held civilly liable for goods or property damage down the road.
LAW 360 Supreme Court Oks Some Strike Suits In Blow to Labor. Jessica Mach and Braden Campbell (6/1/2023)
Labor Union News. U.S Supreme Court Rules Against Union on Property-Damaging Strike (6/1/2023)