The Supreme Court’s Attack on Labor Rights

Photograph Source: Scott Robinson – CC BY 2.0

The U.S. Supreme Court began releasing their expected onslaught of regressive and brutal judicial decisions this month. On June 1st, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered their decision in Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters Local No. 174, 21-1449, delivered their expected blow to weaken labor rights and to further debilitate the administrative state – in this case, the National Labor Relations Board.

The decision was 8-1, Justice Kentanji Jackson Brown was the sole dissenter. Justice Brown stated in her dissenting opinion that the ruling would obstruct labor law and “erode the right to strike.”

Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote the opinion for the majority. Three justices declined to sign on to Justice Barrett’s opinion, the four ultra conservative justices did sign on to the majority opinion as well as offering their own skewed perspective of labor and federal law.

At issue is the proper jurisdictional route for the Seattle based concrete company Glacier Northwest to utilize in their pursuit to recap an alleged claim of $100,000 in property damages. Glacier Northwest chose the Washington state court – believing the court would be more sympathetic to their claim – and to forego the federal jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board.

In August 2017, the negotiating process between Glacier Northwest and the Teamsters Local No. 174 broke down and a strike was called in the middle of the day. The teamsters walked off the job; for those Teamster drivers on the road delivering concrete, they were instructed by the union’s legal counsel to return the trucks and to leave the mixers running to avoid having the concrete hardening and thus making it unusable.

It was the company’s decision to turn off the concrete mixers when the trucks were returned – with the mixers running – and when the strike was settled, Glacier Northwest decided to go to state court to file a $100,000 lawsuit against the Teamsters for property damaged during the strike.

In December 2021, the Washington state court ruled for the union, reaffirming their right to strike and stated that any loss of concrete was “incidental to a strike arguably protected by federal law.” The Washington state court redirected the case to be heard by the National Labor Relations Board.

Lest we forget, the National Labor Relations Board was established as a federal baseline to protect workers’ rights and the right to strike. The Board is comprised by a panel of labor law experts and was founded to safeguard and enforce the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.

Given that this clarification by the Washington court did not satisfy the company, Glacier appealed their plight to the U.S. Supreme Court. And, given that this U.S. Supreme Court will not bypass any opportunity to weaken the labor movement and to decimate the “administrative state,” the case was picked up by the U.S. Supreme Court to determine which judicial body should hear the case.

In an incredible leap of illogic, to bolster the affront of workers leaving their post and calling a strike, Supreme Court Justice Barrett in writing for the majority, claimed that the Teamsters themselves instigated the financial harm and the case needed to be returned to the state court. “So by reporting for duty and pretending as if they would deliver the concrete, the drivers prompted the creation of the perishable product. Then, they walked off the job until the concrete was mixed and poured in the trucks. In so doing, they not only destroyed the concrete but also put Glacier’s trucks in harm’s way.”

The facts proved otherwise, and it was Supreme Court Justice Kentanji Jackson Brown who clarified the situation in her lone dissenting opinion: “Workers are not indentured servants, bound to continue laboring until any planned work stoppage would be as painless as possible for their master…This case is Exhibit A as to why the boardroom and not the courts – should ordinarily take the first crack at resolving contentious, fact-bound labor disputes of this nature.”

As a result of the Supreme Court ruling, Glacier Northwest can now sue the Teamsters in state court for monetary damages. It is easy to speculate how this ruling will inhibit union organizing – conscious of being brought up on possible legal challenges, will unions now limit their organizing in the “blue” or “red” states. And, if damages are to be assessed after a strike or work action, is the company’s claim of workers’ destroying property one to be believed: to state the obvious, sometimes the company is less than forthcoming with their claim of workers’ damaging property.

Sean O’Brien, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, justifiably criticized the ruling and referred to the Supreme Court Justices as “political hacks” and stated the court had “again voted in favor of corporations in favor of longstanding precedent. “Make no mistake,” O’Brien stated, “this ruling has everything to do with giving companies more power to hobble workers if any attempt is made to fight back against a growing system of corruption.”

Nancy Snyder is the Recording Secretary Emeritus of SEIU Local 1021. She has a long history of writing about labor issues and labor history and also writes about political literature.