US Supreme Court Attacks Right to Strike

from ASR 87

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 on June 1, 2023, that a union can be sued if a strike causes the employer economic harm simply as the natural result of workers withdrawing their labor. The bosses dispatched concrete truck drivers after their union contract had expired. When negotiations broke down, Teamsters Local 174 struck. Rather than abandon the trucks in the field, they returned them to the yard so management could clean out the concrete before it set. But they left it too long, and much of the concrete was spoiled. Rather than swallow their losses, the bosses sued the union.

The Supreme Court did not do what many had feared it might: overrule longstanding precedent that bosses generally cannot sue unions in state court over activities – like strikes – covered by the National Labor Relations Act. Instead, it found that this case fell under an existing exception for intentional damage to employer property or failure to take reasonable precautions to prevent such damage.

That exception does not fit this case at all. The NLRB has already ruled that the strike was legally protected. It’s possible that in this case the bosses’ responsibility for their losses is so overwhelmingly clear that the union will ultimately win in state court. But it will have to spend money on attorneys to defend this baseless suit. And the ruling opens the door for bosses to sue any time they lose money as a result of industrial action.

As Teamsters President Sean O’Brien said, “[this] shameful ruling is simply one more reminder that the American people cannot rely on their government or their courts to protect them.”

There have been a growing number of these cases in recent years. Last year, the United Mine Workers were ordered to pay million of dollars to compensate a coal company for losses it suffered during a long strike trying to claw back concessions from the now highly profitable operators (who remained profitable even during the strike, though they did not make as much as they would have preferred. And the ILWU has been tied up in lengthy appeals after a court ordered it to pay $93 million (dramatically reduced since, but still in the millions) to a company that tried to operate a dock in the ILWU’s jurisdiction with cheaper workers from another AFL-CIO union. The ILWU’s campaign was ultimately successful, but the bosses demanded to be compensated for their lost profits (and to be fair actual losses they suffered, at least in part because of their years-long fight with the union). Last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to hear the ILWU’s case.

So it’s still legal to strike in the United States, but the bosses can sue if the strike costs them money. Unions can survive this blow, but to do so they will have to be bold where the courts (and the bosses they serve) demand timidity.

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