The post-lockdown phase of work in the USA has seen multiple workers’ strikes for better working conditions and other labour rights.
The recent and still-ongoing Writer’s Guild of America strike against Hollywood executives has more or less crippled the American entertainment industry. Many fast food chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s workers, and even supermarket chains like Walmart have formed unions despite corporate opposition. These strikes are a painful thorn in the side of corporations that benefit from exploiting labour.
On June 1st, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered an expected hammer upon labour rights to weaken the National Labor Relations Board. The decision was passed 8-1 with the only dissenter being Judge Kentanji Jackson Brown who stated this decision would “erode the right to strike”.
The decision was made in a case for the Seattle-based concrete company ‘Glacier Northwest’ against Teamster Local No. 174. Teamster Local called a strike in the middle of the day in August 2017 after negotiations broke down with Glacier Northwest. The union workers walked off and instructed drivers to return the trucks but leave the concrete mixers working to prevent the concrete from hardening and making it unusable.
Glacier Northwest decided to turn off the concrete mixers when the trucks were returned, which had the mixers running the whole time. When the strike was settled, Glacier Northwest filed a lawsuit against Teamster Local no.174 for US$100,000 for property damages during the strike, which the teamsters specifically took steps to prevent until Glacier Northwest turned off the mixers.
Washington State court, where the lawsuit was first taken, ruled in favour of the union in December 2021, reaffirming the union’s right to strike. The court stated that the concrete loss was “incidental to the strike, which is arguably protected by federal law”. The court redirected the case to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB is a federal baseline to protect workers’ rights including their right to strike.
Glacier Northwest, unsatisfied that the striking workers won’t reimburse the company for a loss of concrete that the company caused, took the case up to the Supreme Court to decide who should hear the case. The Judges’ bench of the U.S. Supreme Court has long been accused of serving the interests of corporations over the working class.
Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote for the majority, claiming that the teamsters instigated financial harm to the concrete company and that the case needed to be returned to the Washington State court instead of the NLRB. The majority opinion blamed the workers who by reporting to duty and “pretending” to finish their task, prompted the trucks to be filled with a perishable product, which destroyed the product and put the trucks in harm’s way when the workers walked off mid-day.
This framing of the events paints the workers as maliciously scheming the strike to cause the company financial loss which is not in line with the facts of the workers keeping the mixers running to keep the concrete from hardening until the company turned them off. Justice Brown, in her sole dissenting voice, clarifies “Workers are not indentured servants who are bound to work until a planned work stoppage”
This ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court allows Glacier Northwest to sue the Teamsters for “damages caused by the strike”. This sets a precedent for other companies to crack down on workers’ strikes and union protests for ambiguous financial damages. Corporations like Glacier Northwest have astronomically more funds to pay legal fees to bust unions than the actual unions.
“Make no mistake,” said Sean O’Brien, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, “this ruling has everything to do with giving companies more power to hobble workers if any attempt is made to fight back against a growing system of corruption.”