Vice President, Labor Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
January 17, 2023
The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments on January 10 in a case involving a somewhat obscure, but important, issue involving liability in a labor dispute. The case, Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), addresses the question of whether the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) preempts a state tort claim against a labor union for intentionally destroying an employer’s property in the course of such a dispute.
The employer in the current case, Glacier Northwest, is a company in Washington State that sells and delivers ready-mix concrete to businesses for construction projects. In August 2017, Glacier and the union representing its 80-90 drivers, IBT Local 174, were negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). During those negotiations, the drivers went on strike one day without notice. In doing so, they abandoned their delivery trucks, which caused the company to waste hundreds of cubic yards of concrete that had already been mixed for delivery.
In a lawsuit filed in state court, Glacier alleged that Local 174 intentionally waited until the concrete trucks were fully loaded for deliveries and then called the work stoppage, deliberately timing it to ensure the destruction of the company’s property. The case meandered through the courts, with both sides appealing ultimately to the Washington Supreme Court, which held that Glacier’s state law claim for damages was preempted by the NLRA.
The NLRA protects “concerted activity” among employees. As such, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the NLRA generally does preempt state-law claims based on conduct that is “arguably protected” or “arguably prohibited” by the NLRA. However, the Supreme Court also has found exceptions to NLRA preemption, going so far as to say that “[t]he dominant interest of the State in preventing violence and property damage cannot be questioned,” as the U.S. Chamber’s Litigation Center notes in an amicus brief filed with in this case.
During oral arguments, the justices peppered the counsel for both sides about the limits of NLRA preemption and whether the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) should decide if an activity as egregious as deliberately destroying an employer’s equipment is “arguably protected” against action by a state court. As the counsel for Glacier explained, “we’d prefer not to be before an administrative agency where the agency is the judge, jury, and executioner. We prefer to be in a court system where we have a… neutral judge and the potential for a jury.”
The outcome of a Supreme Court case is notoriously difficult to predict, but the court may curtail the extent of NLRA preemption in cases involving unreasonable, destructive activity in a labor dispute. If it does, employers may have a greater ability to recover damages from labor unions that egg on such unseemly behavior, which would be a welcome development.
Meanwhile, organized labor and its allies seem to be fretting about the outcome of the Glacier Northwest case, which causes one to wonder whether they think that labor unions should be able to intentionally destroy property during a labor dispute.