Supreme Court Holds Employers Can Sue Unions in Certain Cases for Property Damage Caused by Strike

On June 1, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174, No. 21-1449 (2023), which held that the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) does not preempt state law tort claims for property damage caused by a labor strike when the striking union fails to take “reasonable precautions” to protect employer property. In doing so, the Supreme Court has created an obligation for striking unions to mitigate the risk of harm to employer property caused by a strike.

Glacier Northwest, Inc. (“Glacier”) is a company that delivers concrete to customers in Washington State using ready-mix trucks with rotating drums to prevent the concrete from hardening during transit. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (“Union”) represents truck drivers employed by Glacier. After a collective bargaining agreement between Glacier and the Union expired, the Union organized a work stoppage on a morning it knew Glacier was mixing substantial amounts of concrete for delivery and directed striking drivers to refuse to finish deliveries in progress. Glacier was forced to initiate emergency maneuvers to offload concrete to avoid significant damage to its trucks. Still, all the concrete mixed that day hardened and became useless. Glacier sued the Union for damages in state court for common-law conversion and trespass to chattels, arguing that the Union intentionally destroyed the concrete. While federal law generally preempts state law when the two conflict, a previous decision of the Supreme Court – San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S. 236 (1959) – found that the NLRA preempts state law even when the two only arguably conflict. Consistent with that precedent, the Union moved to dismiss the claims on the basis that the federal law preempts the state law tort claims because the loss was incidental to a strike arguably protected by the NLRA. The Washington Supreme Court agreed with the Union and dismissed the case, and the Supreme Court granted the employer’s petition for certiorari.

In its decision the Supreme Court disagreed with the Washington court, concluding that the Union’s conduct in this case is not protected under the Garmon standard. The Supreme Court reasoned that the right to strike protected by the NLRA does not shield strikers who fail to take “reasonable precautions” to protect their employer’s property from foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent danger due to a work stoppage. The Court relied on the specific facts of the case and found it significant that the drivers prompted Glacier to mix the concrete by showing up for work and then abandoned their fully loaded trucks without notice to Glacier. Although the Court acknowledged that a strike is an economic weapon that is intended to cause financial harm, the drivers went beyond protected strike activity by taking affirmative steps to endanger Glacier’s property.

The Glacier Northwest decision makes it easier for private sector employers to pursue claims for property damaged because of a strike. The case puts unions on notice that cases involving foreseeable damage to employer property, particularly involving perishable products, can proceed on tort claims under state law despite the connection to a strike.

If you have questions on the content of this update, please contact us. We are pleased to assist employers in all matters related to labor relations and strikes.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.