As we previously reported here, in early 2023, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in one of the most anticipated labor cases on the high court’s docket in decades to discuss whether the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or “Act”) preempts lawsuits. state lawsuits for damages caused by unions during strikes. On June 1, 2023, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Glacier Northwest, Inc., dba Calportland v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174, US, No. 21 – 1449, reversing the decision of the Washington Supreme Court and holding that the employer’s civil liability claims were not anticipated by the Act.
The case revolves around property damage that Glacier, a concrete company, suffered during a strike led by drivers represented by Teamsters Local 174 (the “Union”) after contract negotiations broke down. In August 2017, drivers showed up for work and filled delivery trucks with custom premixed concrete, only to abandon the job, leaving at least 16 delivery trucks full of premixed concrete. This subjected the trucks to potential damage and therefore forced Glacier to pour all of the concrete to prevent damage to the delivery trucks causing loss of product.
The majority opinion authored by Judge Coney Barrett and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Sotomayor, Kagan and Kavanaugh determined that the Union had failed to discharge its burden as the party claiming preemption under the Act. The Union’s preemption argument satisfied the first test of presenting “an interpretation of the NLRA that is not clearly contrary to its language and which has not been ‘authoritatively rejected’ by the courts or the Council”, but failed the second test of presenting ” enough evidence to allow the court to conclude that “the NLRA protects drivers’ conduct.
Taking advantage of the limitation of the right to strike provided for in art. Bethany Medical Center, 328 NLRB 1094 (1999), the majority concluded that the Union failed to take reasonable precautions to protect Glacier property from foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent danger due to the sudden cessation of work. The Court highlighted that the Union knew that concrete is a highly perishable product and that the Union was aware that Glacier would not have batched and prepared it for pouring into trucks unless the drivers showed up for duty and gave the impression that would deliver the concrete. By pretending that the drivers were going to deliver concrete and then abandoning the job after the concrete was mixed and poured into the trucks, the drivers not only destroyed the concrete, but also put Glacier trucks at risk of considerable damage, such as the loss of was predictable a perishable product. The Union executed the strike in such a way as to endanger Glacier’s property and waste the concrete it had prepared that day, thus the action lost NLRA protection and the Washington State Supreme Court erred. The Court reversed and referred for further proceedings not inconsistent with its opinion.
Judge Thomas authored an opinion concurring with the judgment and was joined by Judge Gorsuch. Thomas’ concurring opinion addressed how harmony preemption extends beyond standard preemption doctrine and effectively leaves states without the ability to deal with misconduct in the employment field or issue effective remedies in the employment context under state law. For Thomas, the majority opinion underscores the uniqueness of harmony preemption and relied on NLRB precedent to determine whether or not the state court has the power to adjudicate a state tort claim relating to an employment matter.
Judge Alito authored an opinion concurring with the judgment and was joined by Judge Thomas and Judge Gorsuch. Alito’s agreement emphasizes the limitations of the NLRA’s protection of the right to strike and that such protection clearly does not extend to acts of trespassing or violence against employer property, which the Union has committed here.
Justice Jackson was the author of an individual dissenting opinion, stating that based on harmony preemption, the Supreme Court should not have issued a decision until the Board had ruled on the pending complaint filed by the General Counsel as to whether the Union’s strike conduct was legal or even protected by the NLRA. Judge Jackson believes that the majority misapplied the Board’s precedent in a way that threatens the development of labor law and erodes the right of workers to strike by interfering with the Board’s role in adjudicating labor disputes and resolving whether the conduct is legal or protected. by the NLRA. Jackson suggested that the correct course of action according to harmony would have been to overturn the decision of the Washington Supreme Court and resend with instructions to dismiss Glacier’s complaint without prejudice or stay the proceedings in light of the General Counsel’s complaint.
While the majority opinion is fact-specific and does not create a new standard altering whether all state tort claims for property damage as a result of a labor dispute are not anticipated by the NLRA, it does highlight that some consideration must be given to which Remedy Employers may seek to remedy property damage they may suffer as a result of the intentional conduct of a union.