Supreme Court Rules Companies Can Sue Striking Workers for 'Sabotage' and 'Destruction,' Misses Entire Point of Striking

In a new ruling, the Court sided with a company that sued its union for property damage because it went on strike. That sets a precedent that if a union strikes, it has to ensure the company won't lose any money.
man in teamsters jacket holds up fist
Image Credit: Getty Images

Companies can now sue unions for damages incurred by striking, according to a Supreme Court ruling released on Thursday morning. The case sets a new precedent for how companies can respond to striking workers, as large-scale strikes become more common in the U.S. 


The case, Glacier Northwest vs. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, debated whether a union can be held responsible for company damages or monetary losses resulting from a union’s decision to go on strike under the National Labor Relations Act. Cornell’s Legal Information Institute defines the question: “Does the NLRA preempt an employer’s state tort claims against a labor union for intentionally destroying the employer’s property during a strategically-timed labor strike?” 

The suit first began in 2017. Glacier Northwest, a concrete-mixing company based in Seattle, Washington, was in the midst of renegotiating a new contract with the Teamsters, one of the oldest and largest unions in the industry. According to the brief of the case, the contract expired without the two being able to come to a resolution, and as a result, union workers went on strike. However, the work day had already begun, and concrete was already being mixed and delivered when the union ordered a work stoppage. The cement-truck drivers turned around on their delivery routes and drove their trucks back to the concrete plant, and the company had to use “emergency maneuvers” to get the concrete off the trucks before it dried. 


No significant damage was done to the trucks, but some of that day’s concrete dried and was therefore unusable—and so, Glacier Northwest filed a tort action claiming “sabotage” and “tortious destruction” of company property. 

In response, the Teamsters filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge to the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that the company had sued in retaliation against striking, which is a protected union activity. The Supreme Court then undertook to determine who was in the right—except that, as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson writes in her dissent, it is customarily the Board that deals with labor disputes first, and all court activity must be suspended until the Board reaches a decision. 

Eight of the nine Supreme Court justices voted in favor of the company. Justice Amy Coney Barrett authored the opinion. Only Justice Jackson, the newest addition to the court appointed by Joe Biden last year, voted in dissent. She said that because this was a labor dispute, the National Labor Relations Board—and the complaint that the Board’s General Counsel had already filed—took precedence, and the Court in fact had no reason to stick its nose in the case. 


“Today, the Court falters,” Jackson writes. “The logical implication [in this situation] is that the union’s conduct is at least arguably protected by the NLRA…we have no business delving into this particular labor dispute at this time.” 

“The political hacks at the Supreme Court have again voted in favor of corporations over working people,” said Teamsters general president Sean O’Brien in a statement Thursday morning. “These corruptible justices should be ashamed of themselves for throwing out long-standing precedent and legislating from the bench. The ability to strike has been on the books for nearly 100 years, and it’s no coincidence that this ruling is coming at a time when workers across the country are fed up and exercising their rights more and more.” 

Union leaders agree that strikes are supposed to be disruptive. But the precedent this case sets is that when a union goes on strike, it has to ensure that it won’t lose the company any money, said Seth Goldstein, a lawyer at Julien, Mirer, Singla & Goldstein, who has supported organizers in union disputes at Trader Joe’s and Amazon. 

“The idea would be that we would have to make sure that everything is perfectly in order before we went out on strike,” Goldstein said. “That’s outrageous.” 

“Under [San Diego Building Trades v.] Garmon, and as relevant here, a court presented with a tort suit based on strike conduct generally must pause proceedings and permit the Board to determine in the first instance whether the union’s conduct is lawful if the conduct at issue is even “arguably” protected by the NLRA,” Jackson writes, referring to a previous case in which it was decided that the NLRB takes precedence over state and federal courts when it comes to labor disputes and striking. 

“But instead of modestly standing down, the majority eagerly inserts itself into this conflict,” she continues. “In the course of inappropriately weighing in on the merits of those questions at this stage, the majority also misapplies the Board’s cases in a manner that threatens to both impede the Board’s uniform development of labor law and erode the right to strike.” 

The NLRA has protected union activity since 1935, but this court case marks the latest in a series of Republican-led rollbacks of labor law. The Iowa Senate, for example, recently voted to roll back child labor protections. “This is a vehicle that the right wing is using to try to stop us from striking,” Goldstein said. 

Goldstein doesn’t believe this ruling will discourage workers from striking. “People are not going to put up with sweatshop conditions at Amazon, at Starbucks,” he said. “This isn't going to stop millions of workers who are standing up for the right to strike. We see that with Amazon, with the group of OPEIU Local 39 workers that are striking at CUNA for the first time in 80 years, with Trader Joe's, with Starbucks. The new labor movement is going to continue and they're going to continue demanding fair conditions at work. ” 

Teamsters president Sean O’Brian said that the ruling will not impact the Teamsters’ striking efforts, which is critical given that the union’s contract with UPS is set to expire in a few months, and negotiations are making little progress. “Today’s shameful ruling is simply one more reminder that the American people cannot rely on their government or their courts to protect them,” O’Brian said in the statement. “They cannot rely on their employers. We must rely on each other. We must engage in organized, collective action. We can only rely on the protections inherent in the power of our unions.”