Here is an interesting scenario that has turned itself into an important labor case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court this term.
A group of truck drivers in Washington state were in the midst of a labor dispute with their employer. The employer is in the business of producing and delivering custom batches of ready-mix concrete in concrete mixing trucks.
While contract negotiations were ongoing in the summer of 2017, the truckers voted to go on strike. The work stoppage was scheduled to begin at an appointed hour on the summer day. Prior to the scheduled stoppage, the drivers showed up for work and began loading up their mixers for their deliveries that day. When the appointed time for the strike arrived, they abandoned their trucks and headed for the picket line.
I am not an expert on concrete, but I know that when you let concrete sit, it hardens and sets. That is why when you see concrete mixers headed to a pour site, they are usually turning so that the concrete does not settle. If you abandon your mixer with a load of concrete, you at least have to leave the mixer running or else that concrete is going to harden and destroy the mixer.
When the drivers went on strike in 2017, sixteen of the mixers had full loads. While some of the loads hardened, none of the trucks were destroyed because the drivers left the mixers running. Even running, though, over time the concrete would harden. The hardened concrete needed to be off-loaded and then transported off-site for disposal, costing the company money. In addition, none of the loads were delivered that day, further impacting the bottom line.
The company sued the union in state court claiming that it had conspired to cause the concrete to be destroyed and require the company to take on the disposal costs.
The union responded by saying that the actions of the striking workers were not illegal, and in any event, the matter was governed by federal law and could not be decided as a state court action and should therefore be dismissed.
The union’s argument is that because the matter involves a labor dispute which is governed by the federal National Labor Relations Act, that the state of Washington courts cannot intervene in the dispute. Instead, the union has argued that the matter must be decided by the National Labor Relations Board which has “exclusive competence” in deciding these matters.
The union also argued that the activity of the strikers was protected under federal law, and no claim could be brought against the union for the damaged concrete.
The Washington Supreme Court agreed with the union. The employer appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. It is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to allow its lawsuit to proceed so that it can collect damages from the union.
Under the law as it currently exists, this should be an easy case for the Supreme Court to dismiss. But given the Court’s recent decisions in limiting the power of labor unions, I would not be surprised if the Court sides with the employer in this case. A victory for the employer could lead to a new slew of lawsuits by employers against unions when strikes occur to recover the costs incurred as a result of those strikes. A decision from the court is expected in the spring.
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