Supreme Court rules for CalPortland in Teamsters strike damages case

Sources: United States Supreme Court; CP staff

The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered its Washington State counterpart to resume a case where plaintiff CalPortland Co., through its Seattle-based Glacier Northwest Inc. business, seeks damages stemming from a Teamsters Local 174-initiated work stoppage that resulted in the loss of 16 loads of ready mixed concrete. In an 8-1 ruling, the High Court determined that the National Labor Relations Act does not preempt state tort claims for property destruction arising from unions’ exercising their right to strike. 

The June 1 ruling overturns the Washington State Supreme Court’s dismissal of CalPortland claims. The California-based concrete, cement and aggregate producer challenged Local 174 in county and state courts, citing costs incurred when union agents initiated a work stoppage at the Glacier Northwest Duwamish ready mixed plant. The August 2017 incident spurred emergency measures to unload and contain upwards of 150 yards of dispatched, then returned, or just-loaded, outbound product.

At the heart of Glacier Northwest, Inc., dba CalPortland v. International Brotherhood Of Teamsters Local Union No. 174, Justice Amy Coney Barrett writes: “Drivers engaged in a sudden cessation of work that put Glacier’s property in foreseeable and imminent danger. The Union knew that concrete can last for only a limited time [and] left to harden in a drum causes significant damage to the truck. The Union nevertheless coordinated with drivers to initi­ate the strike when Glacier was in the midst of batching large quantities of concrete and delivering it to customers.”

The case arrived at the Supreme Court through a 2022 CalPortland petition seeking review of a Washington State Supreme Court finding that “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. Teamsters compelled the High Court to examine an NLRA preemption standard set in San Diego Building Trades vs. Garmon, a 1959 case rooted in a building material retailer’s pursuit of damages from disruptive picketing. CalPortland and Local 174 counsel, Justice Barrett notes, acknowledge how the National Labor Relations Board has long held that the NLRA “does not shield strikers who fail to take ‘reasonable precautions’ to protect their employer’s property from foreseeable, aggravated and imminent danger due to the sudden cessation of work. Given this undisputed limitation on the right to strike, the Court concludes that the Union has not met its burden as the party asserting preemption to demonstrate that the NLRA arguably protects the drivers’ conduct.”

Considering the timing of the Local 174 actions, Justice Barrett observes, “The risk of harm to Glacier’s equipment and destruction of its concrete were both foreseeable and serious. The Union thus failed to take reasonable precautions to protect against imminent danger.”

Responding to Local 174’s contention that workers do not forfeit NLRA protections by commencing a work stoppage when the loss of perishable products is foreseeable, Justice Barrett points out that Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters involves much more: “By reporting for duty and pretending as if they would deliver the concrete, the drivers prompted the creation of the perishable product. Then, they waited to walk off the job until the concrete was mixed and poured in the trucks. In so doing, they not only destroyed the concrete but also put Glacier’s trucks in harm’s way.” Such conduct is not “arguably protected” by the NLRA, she adds, rather it goes well beyond Act protections.

The High Court ruled 8-1 in Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor joined Justice Barrett in the opinion. Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas offered two opinions concurring with the majority’s judgment. Justice Ketanji Jackson was the lone dissenter. 

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