June 01, 2023

Supreme Court Decides Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174

On June 1, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Glacier Northwest, Inc., d/b/a Calportland v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174, No. 21-1449, reversing and remanding the decision below and holding that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does not preempt an employer’s state-law tort claim alleging that a union intentionally destroyed the company’s property during a labor dispute.

Glacier Northwest delivers concrete to customers in Washington State. After a collective bargaining agreement expired, the Union called for a work stoppage. As alleged in the complaint, that call for a work stoppage came as concrete was being mixed and loaded. Because concrete is considered highly perishable and even concrete in a rotating drum will eventually harden, causing significant damage to the trucks carrying it, Glacier Northwest instructed the drivers that were actively delivering the concrete to finish those deliveries despite the work stoppage. The Union directed drivers to ignore that instruction. Some returned with fully loaded trucks, which created a dilemma, because leaving the concrete to harden would ruin the trucks, but the trucks could not just be emptied because concrete contains environmentally sensitive chemicals. Although no significant damage to the trucks ultimately occurred, the concrete that was mixed that day ultimately became useless.

Glacier Northwest sued the Union for damages 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 moved to dismiss on the ground that the NLRA preempted Glacier Northwest’s claims. The trial court granted the Union’s motion to dismiss. The intermediate appellate court reversed, but the Washington Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s decision, concluding that the NLRA preempted Glacier Northwest’s tort claims.

The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Washington Supreme Court and remanded for further proceedings, affirming the basic principle of broad preemption, but holding that the right to strike is limited when workers fail to take “reasonable precautions to protect their employer’s property from foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent danger due to the sudden cessation of work.” Informed by the complaint’s allegations — which, the Court emphasized, it was obligated to assume to be true — the Union did not take reasonable precautions. Instead, the Court concluded, the complaint pleaded that the Union took affirmative steps to endanger Glacier Northwest’s concrete and trucks. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the case could proceed.

Justice Barrett delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Sotomayor, Justice Kagan, and Justice Kavanaugh joined. Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Gorsuch) filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Alito (joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Gorsuch) filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Jackson dissented.

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