Glacier Northwest: Does the NLRA Preempt State Tort Actions Against Unions?
January 25, 2023
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court received oral argument addressing the question of whether the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) preempts a state-court lawsuit against a union for intentionally destroying an employer’s property during a labor dispute. In one of the most highly-anticipated labor cases before the Court in decades, the justices will decide Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
In 2017, Glacier truck drivers went on strike during negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, resulting in the loss of concrete product when the drivers left cement trucks completely or partially full, which Glacier then had to discard. Glacier sued the Local Teamsters in state court, asserting 6 tort claims arising from the Local’s role in the strike. Glacier also later disciplined the drivers, resulting in an unfair labor practice charge being filed by the Local.
The crux of this case is Garmon preemption, which stems from the 1959 Supreme Court’s decision in San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S. 236. Garmon held that the NLRA preempts state court lawsuits over conduct protected by federal law. Naturally, Glacier argued that the Local’s alleged actions were not protected by the NLRA under Garmon, while the union opposed that position.
During argument, the justices grappled with the distinction between economic harm to an employer—often the very heart of a strike—and the intentional destruction of property. The U.S. solicitor general argued that workers have a right to strike under the NLRA, but that they also have an obligation to take steps that would prevent “foreseeable imminent harm to the employer’s property.” Notably, Glacier’s proposal was similar, but it argued that the government’s test was not as concrete. The union, on the other hand, argued that any narrowing of Garmon could upend federal labor policy, but is also unnecessary to protect the state’s and Glacier’s interests.
A decision is anticipated sometime later this spring. The decision could have huge ramifications, as it may subject labor unions to significant liability risks when they go on strike.