In latest edition of The Wright Toolbox:
Union Right to Strike Does Not Protect Against State Court Tort Claims
In Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. Int’l Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 174, No. 21–1449, argued January 10, 2023, decided June 1, 2023, the Supreme Court recognized that the NLRA right to strike did not protect a Union from tort claims in State court. Glacier Northwest delivers concrete to customers in Washington State using ready-mix trucks with rotating drums that prevent the concrete from hardening during transit. Concrete is highly perishable, and even concrete in a rotating drum will eventually harden, causing significant damage to the vehicle. Glacier’s truck drivers were members of the Teamsters, Local Union No. 174. After a collective-bargaining agreement between Glacier and the Union expired, the Union called for a work stoppage on a morning it knew the company was in the midst of mixing substantial amounts of concrete, loading batches into ready-mix trucks, and making deliveries. The Union directed drivers to ignore Glacier’s instructions to finish deliveries in progress. At least 16 drivers who had already set out for deliveries returned with fully loaded trucks and the concrete was lost. Glacier sued the Union for damages in state court, claiming that the Union intentionally destroyed the company’s concrete and that this conduct amounted to common-law conversion and trespass to chattels. The Union moved to dismiss Glacier’s tort claims on the ground that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) preempted them.
The NLRA protects employees’ rights “to self organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, . . . and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection,” 29 U. S. C. §157. The Washington Supreme Court agreed with the Union, reasoning that “the NLRA preempts Glacier’s tort claims related to the loss of its concrete product because that loss was incidental to a strike arguably protected by federal law.” The U.S. Supreme Court held that the NLRA did not preempt Glacier’s tort claims under the facts of the case, because the Union intentionally destroyed the company’s property during the labor dispute. 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.
In this case, the Union did not take reasonable precautions to protect Glacier’s property from imminent danger resulting from the drivers’ sudden cessation of work. The Union knew that concrete is highly perishable, that it can last for only a limited time in a delivery truck’s rotating drum, and that concrete left to harden in a truck’s drum causes significant damage to the truck. The Union nevertheless coordinated with truck drivers to initiate the strike when Glacier was in the midst of batching large quantities of concrete and delivering it to customers. The resulting risk of harm to Glacier’s equipment and destruction of its concrete were both foreseeable and serious. The Union thus failed to “take reasonable precautions to protect” against this foreseeable and imminent danger. Indeed, far from taking reasonable precautions, the Union executed the strike in a manner designed to achieve those results. Such conduct is not protected by the NLRA.
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