The Supreme Court last week granted certiorari in a case that asks if a company can sue a union in state court for intentionally destroying its property in the course of a labor dispute or whether the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) impliedly preempts any such claim.
The case arises from a dispute between Glacier Northwest, Inc., a Washington company that sells and delivers ready-mix concrete, and Teamsters Union Local No. 174, which represents Glacier’s truck drivers. On August 11, 2017, the Teamsters Union called a strike after it was unhappy with its collective bargaining negotiations with Glacier. As alleged in Glacier’s complaint, which must be accepted as true at this point in the litigation, the Teamsters purposefully timed the strike to “intentionally sabotage” Glacier’s business and destroy its property. Specifically, the Teamsters waited until sixteen concrete trucks were fully loaded with concrete, and then walked off the job. This strategy left Glacier scrambling, as the concrete would be destroyed as it hardened, and it could also permanently damage the concrete trucks. Ultimately, after hastily constructing concrete bunkers in which it could dump the concrete, Glacier was able to save the trucks, but the concrete could not be salvaged.
Glacier sued the Teamsters in Washington state court for intentional property destruction, but the Washington Supreme Court held that because the Teamsters’ conduct was “arguably” protected by the NLRA, Glacier’s state-law claims were preempted under San Diego Bldg. Trades Council, Millmen’s Union, Loc. 2020 v. Garmon, 359 U.S. 236, 246 (1959). Although Garmon explicitly stated that it was not extending NLRA preemption to situations “where the regulated conduct touched interests so deeply rooted in local feeling and responsibility that, in the absence of compelling congressional direction, we could not infer that Congress had deprived the States of the power to act,” id. at 244, the Washington Supreme Court nevertheless held that this Garmon exception applies only to “violent or outrageous conduct” and does not include the intentional destruction of property.
As Glacier’s petition for a writ of certiorari explains, the Washington Supreme Court’s decision is at odds with precedent from the Supreme Court, federal courts of appeals, and other state supreme courts. The decision also incentivizes unions to conduct strikes in a manner that inflicts maximum property damage on the employer, such as walking off the job while expensive equipment is running and will break down without supervision. It therefore seems like a safe bet that the Washington Supreme Court’s decision will be reversed. But will the Court simply clarify that intentional property destruction falls within the “local feeling” exception to Garmon, or will it take this opportunity to narrow Garmon preemption more generally?
Keep an eye out for how this case is covered in the media. In light of the makeup of the current Supreme Court and the media’s liberal bias, I would be shocked if Glacier’s ultimate victory were covered in an even-handed manner. Indeed, shortly after the Supreme Court granted certiorari, the Huffington Post was already decrying how this case “could weaken unions’ ability to strike.” While Glacier’s victory at the Supreme Court seems fairly assured given the precedent in its favor, an even safer bet is that we’ll see more histrionics if and when the Supreme Court issues a decision in Glacier’s favor.