Supreme Court Ruling Could Have Chilling Effect on Labor Strikes

WASHINGTON – In a recent ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has delivered a blow to organized labor, raising concerns among legal experts about the potential implications for unions engaged in strikes. The 8-1 decision, authored by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, is expected to make it easier for companies to sue over strikes that result in property damage. While some experts predict a significant impact on unions, others see a more limited effect.

Legal scholars, such as Angela Cornell from Cornell Law School and Kenneth Dau-Schmidt from Indiana University Maurer School of Law, view this ruling as another step by the conservative-majority court to curtail union and employee rights. They argue that by making strikes riskier and reducing the leverage unions have in negotiations, the decision heavily favors business interests over workers’ collective interests.

However, according to Benjamin Sachs, a professor at Harvard Law School, if lower courts adhere to the reasoning presented in Barrett’s decision, the impact on the right to strike may be relatively minimal. Sachs suggests that the court’s narrow ruling, which centered on a case involving concrete mixing, may not severely undermine the ability to strike.

The court ruled in favor of Glacier Northwest Inc, which had sued a local affiliate of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters after a work stoppage forced the company to discard undelivered concrete. The justices concluded that the company’s claims were not preempted by the National Labor Relations Act because the union had failed to take “reasonable precautions” to prevent foreseeable harm to the employer’s property resulting from the strike.

While the immediate implications of this ruling are subject to interpretation, it comes at a time of increasing strikes called by U.S. labor unions. Bureau of Labor Statistics data reveals a nearly 50% increase in American workers participating in strikes and similar activities in 2022 compared to the previous year. Cornell warns that the decision could discourage collective action by workers by exposing unions to greater legal risks if they decide to strike.

Attorneys representing employers in labor matters, like Dan Altchek from the Philadelphia-based firm Saul Ewing, believe that the ruling provides guidance on how to minimize the likelihood of lawsuits related to strike-related property damage. Altchek suggests that when such lawsuits survive a union’s motion to dismiss, the litigation risk for the union resulting from the strike is significantly heightened.

Despite differing opinions on the ruling’s implications, experts note that it largely maintains the existing legal framework for deciding labor law preemption cases. James Brudney, a professor of labor and employment law at Fordham University Law School, describes the court’s analysis as having modestly lowered the threshold for union protection in cases involving the “take reasonable precautions” test. However, he views this as a relatively minor development when compared to the court’s broader decision to uphold its major framework for labor dispute analysis.

This Supreme Court ruling is the latest in a series of setbacks for organized labor. In previous cases, the court struck down a California agricultural regulation aimed at supporting union organization in 2021 and ruled against mandatory fees for non-members in public employee unions in 2018. Anne Marie Lofaso, a professor at West Virginia University College of Law, believes that this latest ruling aligns with a judicial trend of weakening labor unions by narrowing the definition of protected concerted activity.

As the legal landscape surrounding labor strikes evolves, the consequences of this Supreme Court ruling will become clearer. It remains to be seen how unions and employers will navigate these new parameters and the extent to which workers’ collective rights will be affected.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Scroll to Top