U.S. Supreme Court considers narrowing federal protections for unions

U.S. Supreme Court considers narrowing federal protections for unions

By John Kruzel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday struck down a labor dispute that could narrow federal protections for unions by making it easier for employers to sue over strikes that result in damage to company property .

The justices heard oral arguments in an appeal by a Washington state business, Glacier Northwest Inc., of a lower court ruling in favor of a local branch of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in the company’s lawsuit against the union stemming from a strike of 2017. Glacier Northwest is a unit of Japan-based Taiheiyo Cement Corp.

Some of the conservative justices seemed inclined to strengthen companies’ ability to take unions to state courts, while liberal justices raised concerns about eroding the power of organized workers to strike.

The Supreme Court, with its conservative 6-3 majority, has tended to curb union power in rulings in recent years. The case could pose another setback for organized labor after the justice in 2021 struck down a California farm regulation intended to help unions organize workers.

The legal issue before the justices Tuesday was whether companies can sue unions in state court over claims of intentional damage to property or whether such claims are barred by a federal labor law called the National Labor Relations Act.

Liberal Leader Elena Kagan said a broad ruling in favor of the companies could reduce unions’ decisions about when to strike, which are often made to pressure employers by causing economic harm.

“When we start to focus on purpose, without more, it undergirds almost every strategic decision a union makes about when to conduct a work stoppage,” Kagan said.

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts said there was a difference between causing economic harm and deliberately destroying property.

“The difference between spoiling the milk and killing the cow,” Roberts said.

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Glacier Northwest, which sells and distributes ready-mix concrete, sued Local Union No. 174 of the Teamsters, representing the company’s truck drivers, in state court accusing the union of willful destruction of property during the strike.

A group of drivers have gone on strike as their mixer trucks are filled with concrete. Although the drivers kept their rotary mix drums to delay the concrete from hardening and damaging the vehicles, the company was forced to dispose of the unused product at a financial loss.

President Joe Biden’s administration asked the justices to overturn the lower court’s decision, allowing Glacier Northwest’s lawsuit to proceed.

The Washington state Supreme Court in 2021 ruled that the company’s claims were preempted by the National Labor Relations Act, saying the company’s loss of concrete was incidental to a strike that could arguably be considered protected under federal law. of work.

Glacier Northwest asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that federal preemption does not bar claims made under state law involving the intentional destruction of an employer’s property.

The union said not only could the strike be considered arguably protected under federal labor law, but the resulting loss of concrete did not meet the high bar for overcoming federal preemption. While the US Supreme Court has found that unions can be sued in state court for violent or threatening behavior, the union argued, that narrow exception should not be expanded to allow property damage claims brought under state law.

In another major labor case, the court ruled in 2018 that nonmembers cannot be forced, as they are in certain states, to pay dues to unions representing public employees such as police and teachers who negotiate collective bargaining agreements with employers.

(Reporting by John Kruzel and Andrew Chung in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)

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