The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that labor unions can be held liable for intentional damage they do to an employer’s property during a strike.
The 8-1 High Court majority ruled in a case involving the Teamsters union that such conduct goes beyond that which is even “arguably protected” under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act.
In this case, drivers, of cement trucks who were acting on their union local’s instructions, refused to finish deliveries in progress and returned the fully loaded trucks before walking off the job. Although the company was able to unload the wet concrete and avoid damage to its trucks, all the concrete it mixed that day had to be destroyed.
A lawsuit filed by the employer against the union seeking to collect damages was dismissed by a lower court judge who held that the activity was legal under the terms of the NLRA. The Supreme Court disagreed.
“In rejecting this ‘oversimplification’ of the NLRA, the Court again emphasized that the right to strike is not unlimited and requires that workers take reasonable precautions to protect the employer’s plant, equipment, and products from foreseeable imminent danger,” said attorney John Hodges-Howell of the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm.
Although application of the decision’s precedent seems limited, “the mere possibility of holding unions accountable for at least some of the economic consequences of their work stoppages may cause them to think twice before planning a strike in a way that inflicts maximum economic harm on employers,” he adds.
The costs of litigating such cases alone may have a deterrent effect, he believes “Even if the full scope of this decision is not yet clear, many employers may view it as harbinger of better times ahead.”