On January 10, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local Union 174, a case which will potentially cripple the ability of private-sector unions to strike by opening them up to punitive lawsuits. In this case, the employer is charging that the Teamsters union should be held liable for economic damages caused by a strike. Under long standing precedent in San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, the National Labor Relations Act preempts state lawsuits against strikes and other union activities that are protected by the NLRA.
If the Court, which is currently dominated by a six-person anti-worker majority, decides in favor of the employer, it will open the possibility that any employer, faced with a strike, will be able to sue the union (and, potentially, individual strikers) for economic damages.
On the pro-union legal blog On Labor, Harvard Law Professor Sharon Block wrote that, “If the court decides the case in Glacier’s favor, it will be overturning decades of federal labor law preemption doctrine. Moreover, it will follow a string of cases over the past few years in which the court has reinterpreted precedent to … make it harder for workers to organize unions and collectively bargain.
“If employers have more leeway to argue that a strike has caused economic damage for which the union can be held liable, that right will be weakened. Even the threat of litigation, with its attendant costs, can have a chilling effect on the exercise of rights. At a time of historic levels of worker organizing and public support for unions, the outcome of this case has the potential to slow or reverse that momentum.”