Law doesn’t allow unions to destroy company property

Sabotage and cement trucks were the issue at hand in the Supreme Court’s June 1 decision in Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174.

In an 8-1 decision, with only Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson dissenting, the court affirmed what the law already says: that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does not allow workers to intentionally destroy company property.

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Back in the summer of 2017, after negotiations soured between Glacier Northwest—a company that supplies concrete and other building materials—and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174—the union representing Glacier’s workers—the union called for a strike.

Specifically, the union instructed drivers to strike after Glacier began the process of mixing large amounts of concrete, loading it into trucks and departing for deliveries. Once the union notified Glacier of the strike, Glacier instructed drivers to finish their deliveries, but the union told the drivers to ignore Glacier’s instructions.

At that point, as Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s majority opinion describes, “At least 16 drivers who had already set out for deliveries returned with fully loaded trucks. Seven parked their trucks, notified a Glacier representative, and either asked for instructions or took actions to protect their trucks. But at least nine drivers abandoned their trucks without a word to anyone.”

Because concrete quickly hardens and cannot just be dumped anywhere since it contains environmentally sensitive chemicals, these actions could have damaged or destroyed the company’s trucks.

Fortunately, Glacier was able to employ emergency measures and utilize non-striking workers to safely dump the concrete in bunkers, but not without loss of its concrete. So Glacier sought to recover damages by suing the union in state court.

The initial trial court dismissed Glacier’s claim on the basis that the union and drivers’ actions fell under “protected concerted activity” in the NLRA (a federal labor law that supersedes state law when the two conflict). The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision, and then the Washington State Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision, arguing that Glacier’s loss was “incidental to a strike arguably protected by federal law.”

The U.S. Supreme Court saw it differently. As opposed to an incidental loss, the majority decision concluded:

“The Union’s actions not only resulted in the destruction of all the concrete Glacier had prepared that day; they also posed a risk of foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent harm to Glacier’s trucks. 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.”

The U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Washington State Supreme Court to hear the case devoid of the now-repudiated claim of NLRA-protected activity.

The sole dissenter, Justice Jackson, argued that, under existing precedent, the case should be heard first by the National Labor Relations Board if, given the facts of the case, it is even “arguably” protected by the NLRA. The other eight justices did not believe that it was even arguable that the union’s conduct was protected by the NLRA, but Jackson did.

Jackson also dramatically asserted, “Workers are not indentured servants, bound to continue laboring until any planned work stoppage would be as painless as possible for their master.”

Under that rationale, unionized medical students would be allowed to walk out in the middle of surgeries and unionized firefighters could strike after initiating a controlled burn fire.

It’s reassuring that eight of the nine justices affirmed what the law already says: that workers’ right to strike does not include the right to intentionally destroy an employer’s property. Yet the fact that this case made it to the Supreme Court shows how far unions are going to try to put themselves above the law.