On June 1, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a concrete company seeking to restore a lawsuit against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters alleging that a strike damaged its property.
Glacier Northwest (“Glacier”) delivers concrete to customers in Washington. They use ready-mix trucks with rotating drums which prevent the concrete from hardening during transit. Glacier’s truck drivers are members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local Union No. 174 (“Union”). In the summer of 2017, the collective bargaining agreement between Glacier and the Union expired. The parties negotiated and attempted to reach a new deal; however, things did not go smoothly.
On the morning of August 11, 2017, while Glacier was in the middle of mixing substantial amounts of concrete, a Union agent signaled for a work stoppage. Glacier instructed drivers to finish deliveries in progress; however, the Union directed the drivers to ignore Glacier’s orders. Because concrete is highly perishable, the concrete that had already been mixed that day became useless and was a loss for Glacier.
Glacier sued the Union for damages in Washington state court, claiming the Union intentionally destroyed the company’s concrete. The trial court dismissed Glacier’s claims, holding the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) preempted the state law claims because the NLRA at least arguably protected the drivers’ conduct and the company’s losses were incidental to a strike arguably protected by federal law. Consequently, the state court was powerless to hold the Union accountable for any of the strike’s consequences.
Glacier appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court noted that the NLRA protects the right to strike but acknowledged this right is not absolute. Specifically, 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 the sudden cessation of work. Here, the Court held that the drivers’ conduct (the work stoppage) was not protected by the NLRA because they failed to take reasonable precautions to protect Glacier’s property from foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent danger.
The Supreme Court focused on two factors in reaching its conclusion:
- The drivers engaged in a sudden cessation of work that put Glacier’s property in foreseeable and imminent danger. The Union knew that concrete is highly perishable and can only last for a limited time in a delivery truck’s rotating drum. The Union also knew that concrete left to harden in a truck’s drum causes significant damage to the truck. Nevertheless, the Union coordinated with the drivers to initiate the strike when Glacier was in the process of batching large quantities of concrete and delivering it to customers. Therefore, the risk of harm to its equipment was both foreseeable and serious.
- The Union failed to take reasonable precautions to protect against the foreseeable and imminent danger. The Union could have initiated the strike before Glacier’s trucks were full of wet concrete. The Union did not inform Glacier its trucks, which were full of concrete, had been returned to the warehouse. Therefore, because the Union failed to take even minimal precautions, it failed to fulfill its duty.
The Court concluded that the Union took affirmative steps to endanger Glacier’s property rather than reasonable precautions to mitigate that risk, and the NLRA did not arguably protect its conduct. Thus, the trial court erred in dismissing Glacier’s state law tort claims.
The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.