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Seattle teamster union concrete truck drivers take hit in Supreme Court ruling

Jun 1, 2023, 12:18 PM | Updated: 3:30 pm

Seattle teamsters union...

The Supreme Court ruling could impact union rights in the future. (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

In a blow to organized labor, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a Seattle teamsters union representing concrete truck drivers, which could have wide-reaching effects on how all unions operate.

The court ended a six-year fight between drivers and a major local concrete supplier, Glacier Northwest.

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The case stemmed from contract negotiations in 2017 between Glacier and the Teamsters Local 174 union, representing the drivers. When negotiations broke down, the union called for a strike. Drivers walked off the job while their trucks were full of concrete, which must be used quickly and can damage the trucks if it’s not.

Glacier said the union timed the strike to create chaos and inflict damage. Glacier not only had to dump the concrete but also pay for the wasted concrete to be broken up and hauled away.

Lawyers for the union had said that in this case, the drivers were instructed to be conscientious when they walked off the job, to bring their full trucks back to Glacier’s facility, and to leave the trucks’ mixing drums spinning so that the concrete would not immediately begin to harden.

Glacier sued the union for damages. The Washington State Supreme Court sided with the union, and the company appealed to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court decision unites conservative and liberal justices

In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme 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 Supreme Court ruling united liberal and conservative justices.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote that because the union did not take reasonable precautions to protect Glacier’s property, the trial court was wrong to think federal law required dismissing the lawsuit.

“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,” Barrett wrote in a decision joined by four other justices. Three more justices agreed with the outcome of the case but did not join Barrett’s opinion.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the federal National Labor Relations Act protects the right to strike but with limits. He said it “does not protect striking employees who engage in the type of conduct alleged here.”

The lone dissenter in the case, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, said the decision would hinder the development of labor law and “erode the right to strike.”

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In her dissent, Jackson wrote: “Workers are not indentured servants, bound to continue laboring until any planned work stoppage would be as painless as possible for their master.”

In a statement, Glacier Northwest’s lawyer, Noel Francisco, said the decision “vindicates the longstanding principle that federal law does not shield labor unions … when they intentionally destroy an employer’s property.”

“It’s only saying that a union may be liable under state law in state court, where it causes intentional damage to an employer’s property,” Joshua Nadreau, partner with Fisher and Phillips Law in Boston said. “And still, they’re only liable if they don’t take reasonable precautions to avoid that damage. So it’s not the case where someone could sort of accidentally find themselves subject to liability and state courts under this decision.”

“The strike is an essential weapon,” said Eric Blanc, a labor researcher and scholar who focuses on strikes. “Companies aren’t a democracy … Without a threat to the bottom line, there’s no incentive for management to heed workers’ demands.”

Teamsters General President Sean M. O’Brien said in a statement that the union was disappointed in the results of the court’s decision.

“The Supreme Court is not upholding the law, nor is it advancing the American people. Supreme Court justices are ruling on behalf of billionaires alone — the very ones they socialize with at cocktail parties and who they owe their jobs to in the first place,” O’Brien said. “American workers must remember that their right to strike has not been taken away. All workers, union and nonunion alike, will forever have the right to withhold their labor.”

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Why is this case important?

Many scholars see the court ruling as overturning a long-standing precedent. By deciding in Glacier’s favor, the court challenged decades of federal labor law preemption doctrine.

The impact on the right to strike is significant, as the Supreme Court has long recognized how central the right to strike is in protecting workers’ bargaining power.

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Seattle teamster union concrete truck drivers take hit in Supreme Court ruling