The U.S. Supreme Court has ended a six-year fight between unionized Seattle truck drivers and a major local concrete supplier, ruling against the union in a decision that may impact organized labor across the country.
In an 8-1 decision, the court found that because the union representing the drivers did not take sufficient precautions to prevent serious damage to the company’s trucks when they initiated a strike, the concrete company could move ahead with a lawsuit against the union.
The case had rattled labor groups, who fear that allowing companies to more easily sue after strikes — during which the very point is often to cause an employer economic pain — would saddle unions with expensive legal bills and undermine a key piece of worker leverage in negotiations.
The case arose after Seattle-area concrete truck drivers went on a one-week strike in 2017. When the drivers stopped working, they left concrete in their mixer trucks, making it no longer usable and, the company alleges, risking damage to the trucks.
The company, Glacier Northwest also known as CalPortland, sued the union, Teamsters Local 174. The Washington State Supreme Court sided with the union, and Glacier appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Glacier argued the walk-off was timed to intentionally cause damage that was not protected by federal labor law. The union said drivers took steps to minimize damage to the company’s trucks, including by leaving drums running to delay concrete hardening. The Teamsters argued federal law protecting workers’ rights precluded the company’s lawsuit and that the dispute should instead be handled by the National Labor Relations Board.
Federal labor law protects workers’ right to strike except when they fail to take “reasonable precautions” to protect their employer’s property from “foreseeable, aggravated and imminent danger,” the court noted in Thursday’s decision.
“The drivers engaged in a sudden cessation of work that put Glacier’s property in foreseeable and imminent danger,” the court wrote. “The union knew that concrete is highly perishable and that it can last for only a limited time in a delivery truck’s rotating drum. It also knew that concrete left to harden in a truck’s drum causes significant damage to the truck. The union nevertheless coordinated with truck drivers to initiate the strike when Glacier was in the midst of batching large quantities of concrete and delivering it to customers.”
Glacier celebrated the decision Thursday.
“We’re pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision, which vindicates the longstanding principle that federal law does not shield labor unions from tort liability when they intentionally destroy an employer’s property,” Glacier attorney Noel Francisco said in a statement. “Our client is entitled to just compensation for its property that the union intentionally destroyed.”
Labor attorneys said the ruling stopped short of gutting strike protections, as some had feared.
While the decision was disappointing, the court stopped short of a decision that “would have stripped strikes of protections whenever strikers intend to cause employers economic harm,” attorney Darin Dalmat, who represented the Teamsters, said in a statement.
Instead, the decision “maintained current law” that strikers lack protections only when they don’t take reasonable precautions to avoid immediate and serious harm to employer property, Dalmat said. “At the end of the day, nothing in this decision will stop workers from exercising their federally protected rights to strike when necessary to achieve better wages, benefits and working conditions.”
Only one justice, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, dissented in the decision Thursday.