LS Attorney Podugu – Spring 2023 – MJEAL

Podugu – Spring 2023 – MJEAL

The Supreme Court Case that Threatens to Upend US Labor Law

Priyanka Podugu


Within the next few months, the Supreme Court will release its decision for Glacier Northwest v. Int’l Brotherhood of Teamsters, a case that has held the attention of union activists and corporate leaders, alike. The case reached the Supreme Court in the aftermath of a 2017 strike organized by Teamsters on behalf of truck drivers employed by Glacier Northwest, a Seattle-based company that manufactures cement.[1] The union timed the labor strike to begin after Glacier Northwest employees filled the company’s trucks with cement, causing some of the cement to harden during the strike and rendering it unusable.[2] This prompted Glacier Northwest to file a tort claim in state court against Teamsters for property damage.[3] The company’s claim raises the question of whether the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) preempts state tort claims filed by employers against unions for property damage.

In raising its claim, Glacier Northwest attempts to rupture a sixty-year-old rule compelling states to defer to the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), the administrative agency tasked with enforcing the NLRA.[4] Indeed, in San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon (1959), the Supreme Court held that for union activity subject to the NLRA, “the States as well as the federal courts must defer to the exclusive competence of the National Labor Relations Board,” even in instances where the NLRB declines to provide a ruling.[5] As a direct result of this case, companies cannot presently sue for damages that result from union activity, like strikes, without approval and a finding from the NLRB that federal law does not protect the activity from litigation.[6]

By focusing on the property damage that followed a union strike, Glacier Northwest implicates §7 of the NLRA, which states in part, “employees shall have the right . . . to engage in . . . concerted activity for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”[7] Historically, the NLRB has interpreted this section to protect the right to strike as a concerted activity.[8] However, if Glacier Northwest succeeds in its case, workers would find themselves limited in their ability to lead and organize strikes against their employers without subjecting themselves to litigation afterwards. As Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel explained in a press release explaining Michigan’s decision to join an amicus brief in support of Teamsters in the case, “a concerted withdrawal of labor is virtually the only way employees can exert economic pressure on employers in attempting to bargain collectively . If strikes could not threaten economic loss to employers, they would be useless as bargaining tools.”[9]

For the foregoing reasons, Glacier Northwest presents itself as a daunting challenge to norms within United States labor law. The decision threatens to undercut the NLRB’s authority and neutralize striking as an economic weapon that unions can use without fear of retaliatory litigation. Predictably, reactions toward the case are split along ideological lines. As Glacier Northwest pushed its case forward, it has gained support among business and conservative advocacy groups, who argue that federal law does not preempt these lawsuits.[10] Meanwhile, union activists and 17 state governments, including Michigan, have rallied around Teamsters.[11] Labor rights groups worry that Glacier Northwest will succeed, given that the Supreme Court appears extremely sympathetic to its case.[12] According to research from Lee Epstein and Mitu Gulati, the Roberts Court is arguably the most pro-business Supreme Court in a century, holding businesses a win rate of over 60 percent through its decisions.[13]

The Supreme Court has already diminished union power in cases like Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassit.[14] in CedarPointthe Court held that a California regulation requiring agricultural employers to provide union recruiters with access to their property constituted an unlawful taking under the Fifth Amendment.[15] By limiting union access to workers, this decision undermines union capacity to organize and advocate for employees. Moreover, the framework created by the Court in Cedar Point Nursery could also extend to overrule other government regulations of private property, including housing and anti-discrimination laws.[16]

Public support for unions in the United States is at a 60-year-high, and major corporations, such as Starbucks and Amazon, have watched their employees vote in favor of unionization to advocate for higher wages and manageable work hours.[17] With these trends in mind, the role that an administrative body like the NLRB plays is more important than ever. However, cases like Glacier Northwest carry the capacity to fully transform labor and administrative law in the United States, and potentially diminish the organizing power of workers for years to come.


Priyanka Podugu is a Junior Editor with MJEAL. Priyanka can be reached at [email protected].


[1] Glacier Northwest Inc., Bloomberghttps://www.bloomberg.com/profile/company/0723069D:US (last visited Mar. 3, 2023).

[2] Glacier Nw. Inc. v. Int’l Brotherhood of Teamsters500 P. 3d 119, 123 (2021).

[3] id. at 125.

[4] Ian Millhiser, The Supreme Court hears a case this week that endangers workers’ ability to strike, vox(Jan. 9, 2023), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2023/1/9/23541349/supreme-court-glacier-northwest-teamsters-unions-strike-concrete-garmon .

[5] San Diego Bldgs. Trades Council v. Garmon359 US 236, 245 (1959).

[6] Daniella Zessoules, The SCOTUS Case Quietly Threatening Worker Power, Demos(Feb. 13, 2023), https://www.demos.org/blog/scotus-case-quietly-threatening-worker-power.

[7] 29 USCA §7.

[8] The Right to Strike, National Labor Relations Board, https://www.nlrb.gov/strikes#:~:text=Section%207%20of%20the%20National,for%20employees%20by%20this%20section, (last visited Mar. 3, 2023).

[9] AG Nessel Partners with 16 States in Support of Workers’ Rights Before US Supreme Court, Michigan Department of Attorney General, (Dec. 13, 2022), https://www.michigan.gov/ag/news/press-releases/2022 /12/13/ag-nessel-partners-with-16-states-in-support-of-workers-rights-before-us-supreme-court.

[10] Nick Niedzwiadek, The Supreme Court Case that Has Unions on Edge, Politico(Jan. 9, 2023), https://www.politico.com/newsletters/weekly-shift/2023/01/09/the-supreme-court-case-that-has-unions-on-edge-00076956 .

[11] Supra note 6.

[12] Niedzwiadek, supra note 7.

[13] Lee Epstein & Mitu Gulati, A Century of Business in the Supreme Court, 107 min. Law Rev. Headnotes 49, 59 (2022), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4178504.

[14] Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, 141 S.Ct. 2063 (2021).

[15] id. at 2074.

[16] Erin Mayo Adams, The Supreme Court struck down a key United Farm Workers win. The decision has some infamous echoesThe Washington Post, (Jul. 2, 2021), https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/07/02/supreme-court-struck-down-key-united-farm-workers-win-decision -has-some-infamous-echoes/.

[17] Andrea Hsu & Alina Selyukh, Union wins made big news this year. Here are 5 reasons why it’s not the full storyNPR, (Dec. 27, 2022), https://www.npr.org/2022/12/27/1145090566/labor-unions-organizing-elections-worker-rights-wages.