Unions can be sued in state court if the timing of a strike is likely to cause severe, predictable damage to the employer.
Unions often plan a strike when negative economic impacts on the company provide the greatest leverage for the union. That is the quickest way to a labor agreement and having everyone back at work.
And generally, legal issues arising from a strike will be solely determined by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) under the federal National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Federal law preempts state law in most cases when employees are arguably engaged in protected concerted activities under Section 7 of the NLRA.
But the United States Supreme Court’s June 3, 2023 decision in Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters (No. 21 -1449) reminded unions and employers that strikes timed to create foreseeable and serious economic harm to the employer may expose unions to civil liability and monetary damages under state law.
Glacier Northwest is a ready-mix cement company in Washington State whose truck drivers are represented by Teamsters Local Union 174.
Glacier Northwest loads premixed cement into delivery trucks with large, rotating drums that prevent the cement from hardening before delivery to its customers. Although the rotating drums slow the cement’s hardening process, it will eventually harden – even as it rotates – unless it is timely delivered and poured. If the cement were to harden in the truck’s drum, it would likely ruin the truck’s expensive drum and delivery system.
One morning, immediately after Glacier’s delivery trucks were loaded with wet cement, the union ordered its drivers to strike and walk off the job – fully aware that this would place
Glacier’s trucks in immediate peril and require the employer to act swiftly to operate the trucks and unload the cement before it hardened.
Glacier ordered its drivers to complete their deliveries. But the union told the drivers to ignore the orders to work and walk off the job; and some of them did just that, leaving trucks full of wet cement.
Management was able to take quick action and empty the wet cement before it hardened in the trucks. But all the cement was wasted in the process.
Glacier Northwest filed a civil tort lawsuit for damages in a Washington state court. The union moved to dismiss Glacier’s suit, alleging that the NLRA preempted state law claims and that the NLRB had exclusive jurisdiction. The Washington Supreme Court sided with the union and ruled that federal law governed the case.
But on appeal, the United States Supreme Court reversed the state court’s decision and remanded the case back to state court in Washington state for further proceedings.
The US Supreme Court, affirming prior precedent, said that if Glacier Northwest’s allegations are true, the timing of the strike in this case was calculated to create serious financial harm to the employer and place the employer’s property in immediate peril. When unions engage in this type of intentional and aggravated activity to damage the employer, or fail to mitigate serious and predictable harm, the employer may seek redress through civil tort actions in state court. The NLRA does not provide preemption or protection.
Union advocates and leaders are concerned that the Glacier Northwest case will have a chilling effect on strike plans because unions will be too worried about state law claims for damages arising from a strike.
However, management legal experts believe that the Glacier case was narrowly decided and based on firm precedents that limit a union’s liability for damages to those rare cases where the strikers and union act recklessly and intentionally and fail to mitigate predictable, serious economic consequences for the employer.
Regardless of our perceptions or leanings, the Glacier Northwest case underscores the importance for both employers and unions of creating and growing a collaborative labor-management relationship where all stakeholders benefit in an environment of mutual respect and trust. Litigation is avoided when compliance, transparency, trust and strong labor relations provide the right culture for success.
Click on “Services” or “Contact Us” tab on this website to see how MARC can help you create and grow your labor-management relationship. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and that sure applies in labor and employee relations.