The U.S. Supreme Court, with an ultra-right majority, has decided to hear the case Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174, which could become a historic attack on workers’ rights. The case arises from a 2017 union strike during their contract negotiations in Washington state where 16 cement truck drivers, members of Teamsters Local 174, went on strike against Glacier Northwest. Glacier Northwest is claiming that the cement spoilage due to the strike was intentional property damage.
A conservative foundation, Landmark Legal Foundation: The Ronald Reagan Legal Center, is working with Glacier Northwest to help the company argue that it should be able to sue Teamsters in state court and that the National Labor Relations Act doesn’t include the so-called “intentional property damage” from the striking workers. Landmark Legal Foundation is known for attacking unions such as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, and labor centers at university campuses such as University of Wisconsin and UC Berkeley. It was also part of the historic anti-labor Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court case.
Landmark Legal’s actions expand beyond assaulting unions to include attacks on health care, immigrant rights and voting rights. Landmark Legal’s current focus is on promoting the “independent state legislature theory” — a far right legal doctrine that could even result in the end of the popular vote for the presidency. These current attacks on poor, working-class and oppressed people’s hard fought democratic rights are all connected.
How did this case find its way to the Supreme Court?
Teamsters Local 174 filed a motion that the company’s claims were preempted by the NLRA and the trial court granted it. Following that, Washington state’s Court of Appeals reversed the decision saying that it wasn’t in fact protected by the NLRA. The appeals court decision was later reversed when Teamsters took it to the Washington Supreme Court and Glacier’s claims were dismissed as being preempted by the NLRA since the property damage was due to a strike, which should be protected by federal labor law. And as Teamsters argued in their petition, Glacier knew about the strike and could have taken care of the concrete that spoiled by choosing to make arrangements for deliveries during the strike.
However, Glacier decided in May to file a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court and alarmingly, the Supreme Court has agreed to review the Washington Supreme Court’s decision.
Sharon Block, Director of Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, said in an interview with the Huffington Post, “We have a federal agency that is supposed to figure out these kinds of cases. They have been doing it for decades. This has the potential to fundamentally alter how the [National Labor Relations Act] operates. And that doesn’t belong in state court.”
Block spoke about the consequential implications this would have on workers’ right to strike: “If the court ends up saying, ‘Well, sure, you can strike, but you have to strike in a way that doesn’t cause anybody any discomfort,’ then I think that’s a pretty significant rethinking of the [law].”
Court case could set dangerous precedents
The U.S. Supreme Court deciding to hear Glacier v. Teamsters Local 174 could very well set a dangerous precedent that would allow companies to dodge the NLRB when workers are engaged in protected activity — striking — that has historically been preempted by the NLRA. Not only that, but companies could begin fining unions for operational expenses when workers go on strike, taking away the reason why striking is so powerful under capitalism. U.S. workers have very few rights in the workplace and constantly have to fight to defend and advance them, and this case could turn the clock back by making it costly and legally challenging for workers to engage in strikes.
Under the exploitative economic system of capitalism, workers’ biggest weapon in the workplace is their ability to collectively withhold their labor. Striking is not a decision made lightly. When a union has tried escalating their campaign through a number of tactics, and management still refuses them their dignity and respect, that’s when workers can see the necessity of refusing to work — disrupting the flow of goods or services, hurting the boss’ profits and publicizing their struggle. Without the right to strike or with severe limitations to striking, workers will be stripped away of a crucial tool that they need to have leverage over the boss.
Recent Supreme Court attacks on workers
With a long history of being anti-worker, these dangerous precedents would not be the first set by the Supreme Court. In Janus vs AFSCME, the Supreme Court reversed the previous decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), which had upheld the constitutionality of union dues. However, in the Janus case, the Supreme Court used the 1st Amendment to say that union dues are “compelled speech” even if they are not directly going to political ends. The result was that the Supreme Court made the entire public sector “right to work,” which deprived unions of the resources essential to their functioning.
Janus was a huge blow to the labor movement. The alternative to “right to work” is centered around “fair share” fees, where union contracts can stipulate that all workers, including non-union members, chip in and cover the costs of bargaining and representation, which is equivalent to the cost of union dues minus the cost of what the union would spend on politics. Without these “fair share” fees, unions face the problem of “free-riding,” where workers can choose to not pay fees despite receiving all the benefits of the bargaining and grievance processes.
And the Janus case isn’t the only example of the Supreme Court’s attack on workers. With a 6 to 3 conservative majority, all of whom are millionaires undemocratically appointed to serve lifetime terms, the court has consistently ruled against poor and working people. This is part of a larger trend that can be seen in the United States — along with the courts, laws and law enforcement that favor management and the protection of their property and profits over workers.
Now more than ever, as the rich and powerful are chipping away at the NLRA, we need legislation like the PRO Act to codify strengthened worker rights into law. We are under the threat of the Supreme Court taking away the right to strike — one of the most powerful weapons that workers have — from millions of people. Something like this is only possible in a system of government where the capitalist class rules.
The rightwing is consolidating their power through undemocratic institutions that we can’t vote out, like the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court is not insurmountable. With enough mass pressure from workers, the Supreme Court can be forced to bend. If we organize and stay in the streets, we can fight back against these intensifying attacks against our democratic rights!