The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for a concrete company – Glacier Northwest – to pursue damages over a truck driver walkout that left it with damaged products.
Glacier Northwest delivers concrete to customers in Washington State using ready-mix trucks with rotating drums that prevent the concrete from hardening during transit. Concrete is highly perishable, and even concrete in a rotating drum will eventually harden, causing significant damage to the vehicle.
Glacier’s truck drivers are members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. After a collective-bargaining agreement between Glacier and the Union expired, the Union called for a work stoppage on a morning it knew the company was in the midst of mixing substantial amounts of concrete, loading batches into ready-mix trucks, and making deliveries.
The Union directed drivers to ignore Glacier’s instructions to finish deliveries in progress. At least 16 drivers who had already set out for deliveries returned with fully loaded trucks. By initiating emergency maneuvers to offload the concrete, Glacier prevented significant damage to its trucks, but all the concrete mixed that day hardened and became useless.
Glacier sued the Union for damages in Washington state court, claiming that the Union intentionally destroyed the company’s concrete and that this conduct amounted to common-law conversion and trespass to chattels. The Union moved to dismiss Glacier’s tort claims on the ground that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) preempted them.
The trial court agreed with the Union. After the appellate court reversed, the Washington Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s decision. In its view, “the NLRA preempts Glacier’s tort claims related to the loss of its concrete product because that loss was incidental to a strike arguably protected by federal law.” Glacier Northwest v International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174 – 198 Wash. 2d 768, 774, 500 P. 3d 119, 123 (2021).
The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve whether the NLRA preempts Glacier’s tort claims alleging that the Union intentionally destroyed its property during a labor dispute. In an 8-1 opinion, with Justice Jackson dissenting, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that “the NLRA did not preempt Glacier’s tort claims alleging that the Union intentionally destroyed the company’s property during a labor dispute” in the case of Glacier Northwest v International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174. (June 1, 2023).
“The drivers engaged in a sudden cessation of work that put Glacier’s property in foreseeable and imminent danger.The Union knew that concrete is highly perishable and that it can last for only a limited time in a delivery truck’s rotating drum. It also knew that concrete left to harden in a truck’s drum causes significant damage to the truck. The Union nevertheless coordinated with truck drivers to initiate the strike when Glacier was in the midst of batching large quantities of concrete and delivering it to customers. Predictably, the company’s concrete was destroyed as a result. And though Glacier’s swift action saved its trucks in the end, the risk of harm to its equipment was both foreseeable and serious.”
“The Union failed to ‘take reasonable precautions to protect’ against this foreseeable and imminent danger. Bethany Medical Center, 328 N. L. R. B., at 1094. It could have initiated the strike before Glacier’s trucks were full of wet concrete – say, by instructing drivers to refuse to load their trucks in the first place.”
The unions argument oversimplified the NLRA. “As we explained, the right to strike is limited by the requirement that workers ‘take reasonable precautions to protect the employer’s plant, equipment, or products from foreseeable imminent danger due to sudden cessation of work.‘ Bethany Medical Center, 328 N. L. R. B., at 1094. So the mere fact that the drivers engaged in a concerted stoppage ofwork to support their economic demands does not end the analysis.”
“Thus, accepting the complaint’s allegations as true, the Union did not take reasonable precautions to protect Glacier’s property from imminent danger resulting from the drivers’ sudden cessation of work. The state court thus erred in dismissing Glacier’s tort claims as preempted on the pleadings.”