Supreme Court to Hear Arguments that Union Work Stoppage Sabotaged Property

By Jim Sams | October 11, 2022

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to review a Washington state case that will determine whether a business can pursue a lawsuit against a labor union that the company says intentionally damaged its property.

The high court on Oct. 3 granted a petition filed by a concrete company, Glacier Northwest, asking it to review a Washington Supreme Court decision that dismissed its lawsuit against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174. The state court determined that the National Labor Relations Act preempts the lawsuit because the union’s actions that caused the damage are “arguably protected” by the law.

“If the court finds that such conduct is not preempted and may be litigated in state court, such a ruling could go far in protecting employers’ interests in contentious labor disputes and potentially shift the balance of power towards employers during these disputes,” the Proskauer Rose law firm said in an article published by the National Law Review.

Glacier contends that while it was negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the Teamsters in August 2017, the union deliberately timed a work stoppage to sabotage company property. On a morning when concrete was scheduled to be delivered to job sites in mixing trucks, a union agent made a throat-slashing gesture to signal an immediate stop, the company says.

Glacier said 16 drivers parked their trucks in the company’s yard and left them idling with concrete inside the mixing drums. The company said it scrambled to prevent the concrete from congealing. It hastily constructed temporary bunkers and dumped the concrete. It broke up the concrete after it hardened and hired trucks to haul it away “at considerable additional expense.”

Glacier sued the union. The state Superior Court in King County dismissed the lawsuit, but the Court of Appeals reversed. The union appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in November 2021 that the lawsuit was “impliedly preempted” by the National Labor Relations Act.

The Washington high court said that while striking employees may not intentionally damage their employer’s property, “economic harm may be inflicted through a strike as a legitimate bargaining tactic.” The National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935, gives labor unions the right to strike.

A coalition of business groups and contractors filed an amicus brief arguing that the state Supreme Court’s decision left employers without any remedy should their workers vandalize their property.

“Because state tort actions are often the exclusive means by which businesses recover for such unlawful acts, businesses in Washington will be left holding the bag whenever unions unlawfully swap negotiations for vandalism,” the brief says.

The union argues in a brief that its members actually protected Glacier’s property by leaving the mixing trucks running when the work stoppage commenced. Glacier had to dispose of the concrete only because it failed to arrange for replacement workers.

“It is difficult to imagine what further steps the union could have taken to protect Glacier without seriously undermining the effectiveness of the strike,” the brief says.

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