On January 10, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters 174 case, which has the potential to deal a massive blow to workers’ right to strike. The failure of building material company Glacier Northwest in 2017 to reach a tentative agreement before the previous contract expired led cement truck drivers, represented by Teamsters 174, to strike. Glacier Northwest is claiming that the strike caused intentional property damage when cement was spoiled.
The court has indicated it is sympathetic to the employer’s arguments, the implications of which amount to a frontal assault on the labor movement and workers’ right to strike. It also reflects the far-right court’s program to undermine or eliminate workers’ democratic rights.
Lawsuits for economic loss
A ruling in favor of Glacier Northwest could force the union to shoulder costs previously deemed incidental to protected union activity. Not only does Glacier Northwest cite the spoiled cement as intentional property damage, but they also highlight $100,000 lost in contracted work for the day after the strike began.
Such a broad definition of intentional property damage would mean that school workers might be sued for spoiled food in the cafeteria, or that nurses may be sued simply because profitable surgeries had to be rescheduled for the duration of the strike.
Furthermore, the arguments focused heavily on the “intent” to cause property destruction on the basis of the timing of the strike. If the Supreme Court adopts this definition of intent, then unions will need to time their strike activity to ensure that there is no incidental spoilage of products or economic harm, severely restricting the strongest weapon that workers have in their arsenal.
Gutting San Diego Trade Councils v. Garmon
One precedent at stake in the case was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1959 that ensured that disputes that are “arguably” related to workers’ legally protected activities receive a ruling before the National Labor Relations Board prior to legal action being taken under state law. At that time, court opinion argued that the state law and the court should “yield to the exclusive primary competence” of the NLRB. In this most recent case, not only were the Teamsters engaged in protected activity, but the NLRB defined Glacier Northwest’s actions as an unfair labor practice in a complaint issued by the board.
Without Garmon, the Supreme Court could create an ‘open season’ on labor unions at the behest of state law. Any action by union members that is perceived in the eyes of the employer’s legal team as violating state law could become an immediate lawsuit without any ruling by the NLRB. Unions will find themselves forced to think carefully about the implications of strike activity and whether it will incur insurmountable legal costs and additional retrograde court rulings rather than winning badly needed concessions for workers.
The Supreme Court has issued other anti-worker decisions in recent years. In the 2018 Janus decision, the court dealt a major blow to public sector unions’ finances by eliminating their ability to collect fair share fees for union representation. The Court defined these fees, which cover the minimum costs of operation of a union and are not used for political ends, as “compelled speech.”
Similarly, the Cedar Point decision in 2021 set a precedent that limits union access to workplaces by prohibiting farm worker organizers from walking on to farm property for the purpose of meeting with workers. Cedar Point is particularly dangerous because it opens up the opportunity to further erode access to private businesses by unions. This greatly limits unions’ ability to effectively represent members, conduct meetings, elections, etc.
Workers today are increasingly standing up for their rights in the workplace. There were more than 1,200 union elections in 2022 and unions won in 72% of them, which represents a 50% increase in elections and 11% increase in win percentage when compared to 2021. At Starbucks 4 out of every 5 union elections resulted in a victory for Starbucks Workers United.
Strikes have also surged in 2022 as workers initiated 314 strikes, which represents a 91% increase since 2021. A large portion of these strikes were in the retail, education, healthcare, or manufacturing industries. This is the highest single year increase in strike activity in decades, coming on the heels of several years of similar increases.
Additionally, worker consciousness about the need for unions and support for them has grown to the highest levels since the early 1970’s. According to Gallup, 1 in 6 people in the United States currently live in a household where at least someone is a union member and 71% of all people surveyed indicated they support unions. If unions were to grow by such a substantial number it would dramatically cut into the profits of major corporations.
Unions have the capacity to play an important role in the struggle to defend basic democratic rights in the United States from the assault of the Supreme Court. Union members are directly impacted when the right to vote, to abortion, to education, marriage equality, clean air, and many others are taken away.
Unions are hubs of struggle and solidarity whose members have the capacity to disrupt business as usual by withholding their labor. The Supreme Court wants to shut them down, but the fight for dignity on the job will continue no matter what obstacles are placed in the way.