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Supreme Court Affirms the Right to Strike Is Not Absolute When Union Fails to Take Reasonable Steps to Mitigate Property Damage

Labor & Employment Publications

In Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local No. 174, the U.S. Supreme Court held—in a near-unanimous opinion last month—that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) did not preempt a company’s state tort claims alleging that union members intentionally destroyed the company’s property during a strike. (You can read our earlier posts on Glacier here and here.) While the Court’s decision was very fact-specific, the Court unambiguously held that the NLRA does not shield strikers and unions who fail to take reasonable precautions to protect their employer’s property from “foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent” danger during a sudden work stoppage. 

As alleged in the complaint, the Teamsters local that represented truck drivers at a concrete company called for a work stoppage mid-morning, when the company was mixing substantial amounts of wet concrete, loading batches into trucks, and making deliveries to customers. Multiple drivers abandoned their trucks, leaving the concrete mix to harden and potentially cause significant damage to the company vehicles. The company scrambled to offload the concrete, thus preventing damage to the trucks, but the concrete hardened and became useless. The company sued the union for damages in state court, alleging that the union intentionally destroyed the company’s concrete. 

The union argued that workers do not forfeit the NLRA’s protection of lawful work stoppages by commencing a strike when the loss of perishable products is foreseeable, but the Court rejected such broad immunity, and repeatedly emphasized that it was the union’s failure to take reasonable precautions that controlled the decision. The Court acknowledged that the union’s decision to initiate the strike during a workday and failure to give the employer specific notice did not, in themselves, render the union’s conduct unprotected by the NLRA. However, the Court deemed these actions to be relevant in evaluating whether the strikers took reasonable precautions, whether harm to property was imminent, and whether that danger was foreseeable.  

In its analysis, the Court found that the facts, taken together, demonstrated that the union failed to take reasonable precautions in numerous ways, including by reporting for duty and waiting to initiate the strike until the concrete was mixed and poured into the trucks, thus destroying the concrete and putting the employer’s trucks in harm’s way. In particular, the Court found that the union’s decision to call a strike after its drivers loaded a large amount of wet concrete into the company’s delivery trucks strongly suggested that it failed to take reasonable precautions. 

The Court also rejected the union’s argument that any state law claim was preempted by the NLRA under the Garmon preemption doctrine. In San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, the Supreme Court held that the states cannot regulate conduct that the NLRA “protects, prohibits, or arguably protects or prohibits.” The Court determined that, based on the facts in this case, the union did not meet its burden as the party asserting preemption of demonstrating that the NLRA arguably protects the striking members’ conduct. Because the union took affirmative steps to endanger the employer’s property rather than reasonable precautions to mitigate the risk, the Court found that the NLRA did not arguably protect the union’s conduct. Thus, the company was allowed to move forward with its state tort claims against the union. 

This decision clarifies that the right to strike under the NLRA is not absolute and that unions may be liable for property damage caused by the strike if they do not take reasonable precautions to protect their employer’s property from serious and foreseeable harm. 

Please contact a Franczek attorney if you have any questions about this decision and how it might apply to your workplace.