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Supreme Court sides with cement mixing company over striking workers in latest blow to unions

Jan 25, 2024

The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with a cement mixing company that seeks to bypass federal labor law and sue a union in state court for the destruction of property caused by striking workers.

The court said the dispute could continue in state court for now, a move that could chill workers’ decisions to strike for fear that unions would now have to face potentially costly litigation in state court for misconduct during federally protected strikes.

The union argued that the case should be handled by an independent federal agency that investigates allegations of wrongdoing, and that the union should not have to face costly state litigation.

The case had been closely watched by supporters of unions who have witnessed the conservative majority in recent years chip away their power.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for the majority that included two of the court's liberal members, said that the Washington state Supreme Court had been too dismissive of arguments made by the business that it should be able to move forward in state court with a claim of intentional destruction of property.

She pointed particularly to the fact striking workers "abandoned fully loaded trucks" of cement "without telling anyone," a move that could have destroyed the trucks had they not been unloaded in time by non-striking workers at the company, Glacier Northwest.

Barrett said that 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 the risk," the conduct at issue is arguably "not protected by the" National Labor Relations Act, Barrett wrote.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh joined Barrett's opinion.

Noel Francisco, an attorney for the cement company, said he was "pleased" with the court's ruling. "Our client is entitled to just compensation for its property that the union intentionally destroyed."

The ruling is a loss for the unions, but the majority maintained a test for future cases that the unions had argued should remain in place.

"Given the implications of the ruling, and the uncertainty it will create for when striking workers can and can't be sued for damage to their employers (as Justice Jackson stressed in her dissent), it may seem odd that Justices Sotomayor and Kagan joined Justice Barrett's majority opinion," said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

"But compared to completely revisiting the court's 1959 decision holding that state law generally doesn't apply in these circumstances, the fact that Justice Barrett's analysis rests on the narrow facts of this case – including the workers’ intentional misconduct and lack of effort to mitigate the damage – likely was enough to attract two of the three Democratic appointees, and too narrow for some of her fellow conservatives," he said.

Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas agreed with the majority's bottom line but would have gone further in their reasoning.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson filed a dissenting opinion joined by no other justice, in which she suggested that the majority's opinion "risks erosion of the right to strike."

She said that the majority opinion would likely cause "considerable confusion" in the lower courts about what Supreme Court precedent requires, and she charged that her colleagues had failed "in multiple respects to heed Congress’ intent" that the National Labor Relations Board take a primary role in adjudicating labor disputes.

"In my view, doing that places a significant burden on the employees exercise of their statutory right to strike, unjustifiably undermining Congress's intent," Jackson wrote. She noted that "workers are not indentured servants, bound to continue laboring until any planned work stoppage would be as painless as possible for their master."

Conservatives on the court have diluted the strength of unions in recent years. In 2018, for instance, the court held that public-sector unions aren't automatically entitled to dues from non-union members.

Back in 2017, Glacier Northwest, a company that sells and delivers ready-mix concrete, was negotiating with Teamsters Local 174 when the company's truck drivers went on strike. The workers left behind concrete in trucks, causing non-striking workers and managers to work quickly to remove the concrete so as not to damage the trucks. The trucks were saved, but the concrete went to waste and the company moved to sue in state court for damages that resulted from the strike.

A lower court dismissed the claims, holding that they were preempted by the federal National Labor Relations Act, a law passed in 1935 that established the legal right for workers to join labor unions and enter into collective bargaining. Under the law, labor disputes are resolved by an independent agency called the National Labor Relations Board set up to enforce US labor law.

In the dispute at hand, Glacier argued that the workers’ activity amounted to intentional destruction of property and did not fall under the scope of the NLRA because it doesn't cover workers who fail to take "reasonable precautions" to prevent the destruction of an employer's property. They said state courts are proper vehicles to decide tort claims.

The unions, on the other hand, said the workers had acted responsibly as evidenced by the fact that no truck was damaged.

The Biden administration supported neither party in the dispute, arguing that the lower court had erred, and the case should be remanded to the state court for further fact-finding.

This story has been updated with additional details.

CNN's Devan Cole contributed to this report.