Supreme Court Delivers Blow To Workers Everywhere
The right to strike is in peril after an unprecedented supreme court decision.
In an overwhelming decision by 2023 standards, eight U.S. Supreme Court justices agreed with the principle that unions can be sued for the damages caused by strikes. Ketanji Brown Jackson was the lone dissenter on behalf of unions.
In a staggering decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled 8-1 that unions can be sued for economic damages caused by strikes. It’s the latest in an escalating series of court decisions that are chipping away at the rights of workers. The implications are vast and unsettling.
The case in question was Glacier Northwest, Inc. vs. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174. The Teamsters cement truck workers went on strike against their employer, a building materials company. They returned their equipment, taking precautions to avoid vehicle damage, including leaving the cement mixers running. However, when Glacier Northwest did not bring in alternative labor to maintain the trucks, the cement eventually spoiled, sparking a lawsuit against the Teamsters. Despite an initial rejection by the Washington state Supreme Court, the case was elevated to the US Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's ruling.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, penning the majority opinion, stated that the drivers’ strike caused "foreseeable and imminent danger" to Glacier's property.
If a business can sue its employees for financial harm caused by a strike, how many workers will go to the mat for their rights?
The ruling's shockwaves reach far beyond cement truck drivers. Strikes, by their very nature, create "foreseeable" economic consequences for employers. When Starbucks workers strike, should they have to compensate Starbucks for every unsold latte? Hollywood's ongoing writers' strike is likely to bring financial pain to studios, caterers, actors, and set-builders. Can these unions, or others, now be held liable for economic damages? The court’s ruling leaves this question up in the air.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the sole dissenter, reminded her colleagues that harming employers economically is a feature, not a bug, of strikes. Further, just as workers can exercise their right to strike, employers can exercise their right to hire new workers. It’s how the balance of power between labor and employers is maintained. An America in which workers do not have the right to withhold their labor would be a frightening one.
Some critics of the decision argue that the court determined the value of the material inside the cement truck to outweigh the value of the workers' right to fight for fairness.
The Supreme Court’s decision is a departure from precedent. In previous cases involving the loss of perishable goods, like dairy and poultry products, during strikes, it has been ruled that unions are not liable.
The decision also tosses more than 50 years of labor dispute resolution methods out the window. Previous protocol dictated a pause in court proceedings to allow the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to decide whether or not the union's conduct was protected or prohibited by law. In this case, the Supreme Court stepped over the NLRB, taking it upon themselves to rule against the Teamsters.
While this recent ruling has left a lot of questions unanswered, one thing is certain: the threat of costly lawsuits will have a chilling effect on unions and diminish the bargaining power of workers. With the war against workers heating up, it has never been more important to ask your realtor: “who built this building?”
Mark Colangelo is a writer and blogger.
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