CalPortland v. Teamsters narrows NLRA gray area

A willingness to take a deep dive into ready mixed concrete production and revisit a tired National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) interpretation guided the highest court in the land to appropriate action in Glacier Northwest, Inc., dba CalPortland v. International Brotherhood Of Teamsters Local Union No. 174—a case we first examined here in December 2022. 

In last month’s 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court returned to the Washington State Supreme Court a proceeding where the plaintiff seeks damages stemming from a defendant-initiated work stoppage that resulted in the loss of 16 loads of ready mixed concrete. Justices determined that the NLRA does not preempt employer state tort claims for property destruction arising from unions’ exercising their right to strike, thereby overturning the Washington State Supreme Court’s dismissal of CalPortland claims. The concrete, cement and aggregate producer had challenged Local 174 in county and state courts, citing costs incurred when union agents initiated a work stoppage at its Glacier Northwest Duwamish ready mixed plant. The August 2017 incident spurred emergency measures to unload and contain upwards of 150 yards of dispatched or freshly loaded product.

At the heart of CalPortland v. Teamsters, 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 High Court through a 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.” CalPortland v. Teamsters prompted justices to examine an NLRA preemption standard set in San Diego Building Trades v. Garmon, a 1959 case where a building material retailer sought 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.”

Considering the timing of the Local 174 actions, she 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 the union’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 CalPortland 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.

While CalPortland continues its case in Washington State, the Supreme Court ruling clarifies NLRA limits that have provided unions a berth too wide. When strike-minded locals measure financial risks associated with work stoppages, they might think a little more about CalPortland confines than Garmon cover. 

Don Marsh
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