When Strikes Break New Ground: The Legal Implications for Workers Engaged in Protest

Construction and Procurement Law News, Q3 2023

Client Alert


In the realm of labor disputes, strikes have long served as a powerful tool for workers to voice grievances and push for improved working conditions. However, the line between peaceful protest and unlawful behavior can be blurred. In, Glacier Northwest, Inc. v International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174, the U.S.Supreme Court struck a mighty blow to the foundation of union protests when workers banked on the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to their detriment. Historically, the NLRA has protected and promoted the rights of employees in relation to collective bargaining, organizing, and engaging in other concerted activities for the purpose of mutual aid and protection. Under the NLRA, employers are prohibited from interfering with employees’ right to engage in union activities including organized strikes.

Glacier Northwest is a concrete contractor and, after a union agreement ended, Glacier Northwest’s truck drivers, members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174, were instructed by the Union to stop working on a morning it knew that Glacier Northwest was in the process of mixing substantial amounts of concrete, loading batches into ready-mix trucks, and making deliveries. The Union instructed drivers to ignore Glacier Northwest's instructions and cease deliveries in progress. At least 16 drivers who had already set out for deliveries returned with fully loaded trucks. Glacier Northwest prevented significant damage to its trucks by initiating emergency maneuvers, however, all the concrete material mixed that day hardened and became useless. Glacier Northwest sued the Union for damages in state court, claiming that the Union intentionally destroyed the company's material and that this conduct resulted in significant damages.

The case made its way all the way to the Supreme Court where the Court decided that the actions of the Union failed to meet the NLRA standards of “tak[ing] reasonable precautions to protect” against foreseeable and imminent danger, and, therefore, did not constitute protected actions. On the contrary, the Union took affirmative steps to endanger Glacier Northwest's property rather than reasonable precautions to mitigate the risks. Moreover, there were alternative measures that could have been taken to mitigate Glacier Northwest’s loss: the Union could have initiated the strike before Glacier Northwest’s trucks were loaded with material or facilitated a safe transfer of equipment. But, instead, they failed to take reasonable measures to protect against the resulting damage, thereby losing the protections historically afforded by the NLRA.

When dealing with labor disputes, it is crucial to remember the ultimate goal should be to find resolutions that are fair, reasonable, and uphold the dignity and rights of all involved. Let this case be a reminder to tread carefully and consider the potential ramifications before resting on legal maneuvers in bad faith, as the consequences can be far reaching and detrimental to all parties involved.