US supreme court ruling makes it easier for companies to sue striking workers

Ketanji Brown Jackson is sole dissenter as court sides with Washington state concrete firm in ruling seen as blow to unions

The US supreme court on Thursday made it easier for employers to pursue lawsuits against striking workers, in a decision seen as a setback to labor unions.

The opinion, written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett and backed by not just conservative colleagues but all except one on the nine-member bench, sided with a concrete business in Washington state that sued the union representing its truck drivers after a work stoppage.

Ketanji Brown Jackson, the bench’s most recently confirmed associate member, was the lone dissenter, noting “today the court falters”.

The decision in the case of Glacier Northwest Inc against a local affiliate of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters overturned a lower court’s ruling in the union’s favor.

Glacier had accused the union of intentional property destruction during a 2017 strike when a group of drivers went on strike on a day when their mixing trucks were filled with concrete for delivery to customers. The company had been forced to discard the unused product at a financial loss. If the concrete is left in the trucks to harden, the vehicles can sustain serious damage.

The supreme court overruled the Washington state supreme court ruling that the loss was incidental to a strike that could be considered arguably protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

The Biden administration urged the justices to reverse the lower court’s decision, Reuters reports. The decision allows Glacier’s lawsuit to proceed.

It also extends the panel’s recent trend of curtailing the power of labor unions. In 2021, justices struck down a California agricultural regulation aimed at helping unions organize workers, the agency said.

And in 2018 it ruled that non-members cannot be forced, as they are in certain states, to pay fees to unions representing public employees such as police and teachers that negotiate collective bargaining agreements with employers.

On Thursday, Barrett said the union’s actions had not only destroyed the concrete but had also “posed a risk of foreseeable, aggravated and imminent harm to Glacier’s trucks”.

“Because the union took affirmative steps to endanger Glacier’s property rather than reasonable precautions to mitigate that risk, the NLRA does not arguably protect its conduct,” she wrote.

Jackson, in a 27-page dissent included with the court’s published opinion, wrote that the ruling “risks erosion of the right to strike” and “is likely to cause considerable confusion among the lower courts” about how pre-emption under the National Labor Relations Act should apply in future cases.

None of the bigger decisions expected from the court as it concludes its term came on Thursday. Those, covering affirmative action in higher education, LGBTQ+ equality and the rights of Native American tribes, are now expected later this month.


Richard Luscombe and agency

The GuardianTramp

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