The Supreme Court Clarifies an Employers Right to Sue Unions

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Attorney Harrison Oldham



In a noteworthy ruling on June 1, 2023, the United States Supreme Court addressed the issue of an employer’s ability to sue a union for deliberate property damage during a labor dispute. The case, Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Loc. Union No. 174, involved Glacier Northwest, which is a company in Washington State that delivers concrete to its customers.


When its collective bargaining agreement with Teamsters Loc. Union No. 174 expired, the Union called for a work stoppage. According to the complaint, this work stoppage was initiated while concrete was being mixed and loaded. Since concrete is highly perishable and hardens over time, which can cause damage to the trucks carrying it, Glacier Northwest instructed the drivers – who were actively delivering concrete – to complete their deliveries despite the work stoppage. However, the Union directed the drivers to disregard the instruction.


In response, some drivers returned with fully loaded trucks, leaving the concrete in the trucks.  However, emptying the trucks was not an option because concrete contains environmentally sensitive chemicals. Ultimately, although the trucks did not suffer significant damage, the concrete mixed that day became unusable.


In response, Glacier Northwest filed a lawsuit against the Union in state court, claiming that the Union intentionally destroyed the company’s property and that this conduct amounted to common-law conversion and trespass to chattels.  The Union sought to dismiss the case, arguing that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) preempted Glacier Northwest’s claims. The trial court granted the Union’s motion to dismiss, but the appellate court overturned that decision. However, the Washington Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s ruling, determining that the NLRA preempted Glacier Northwest’s claims, but unfortunately for the Washington Supreme Court, the United States Supreme Court decided to review the case.


In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court sided with Glacier, ruling that because the Union’s conduct “took affirmative steps to endanger Glacier’s property,” the conduct was not arguably protected by the NLRA. The Supreme Court acknowledged the NLRA’s protection of the right to strike but noted that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has consistently held that the NLRA does not shield those who fail to take reasonable precautions to protect their employer’s property from foreseeable harm resulting from work stoppages.


In light of this, the Supreme Court concluded that the Union failed to demonstrate that the NLRA preempted the case. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for the majority, highlighted that the Union’s actions went beyond the NLRA’s protections as it endangered Glacier’s trucks and intentionally damaged the concrete. Consequently, the Supreme Court reversed the Washington Supreme Court’s judgment and sent the case back for further proceedings.


Justice Jackson issued a dissenting opinion, expressing concerns that the majority’s decision would create confusion in lower courts regarding the application of preemption and could potentially undermine the right to strike. Justice Jackson also argued that the Supreme Court should have postponed its decision since there was a pending complaint against the company before the NLRB.


In summary, the Supreme Court’s decision implies that unions can face lawsuits for work stoppages resulting in intentional damage to company property. While unions were previously susceptible to state court lawsuits for violent or threatening behavior, this ruling expands the possibility of suing a union in state court when it is alleged that a work stoppage was initiated with the deliberate intent to damage company property.


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About Harrison Oldham

Harrison grew up in Mansfield, Texas. He attended Texas A&M University for his bachelor’s degree, where he met his wonderful wife, Kelsey. After graduating magna cum laude from Texas A&M, he attended SMU Dedman School of Law, graduating with honors in 2012. Today, Harrison and his wife live in Dallas, Texas with their son, Teddy.

Since graduating from SMU Law, Harrison has worked exclusively in the field of business law. He has spent time in private practice and in-house, working with clients of every size; from single person startups to Fortune 250 companies. Today his practice focuses on serving the diverse needs of businesses and individuals throughout Texas. You can learn more about Harrison by visiting his website, at: http://lonestarbusinesslaw.com/.

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