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SCOTUS case could have far-reaching implications for unions

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Eric Tegethoff

(Washington News Service) A case before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington state could have big implications for labor unions and their ability to strike. The case, Glacier Northwest versus the International Brotherhood of Teamsters is scheduled for a hearing in January. It stems from 2017 when Teamster drivers for the cement company went on strike, causing the concrete in their trucks to harden. Glacier sued the union for monetary damages. 

Elizabeth Ford, Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the Seattle University School of Law, said a ruling in favor of Glacier could allow companies to shift the cost of striking onto unions.

"The idea that an employer can sue a union for damages caused by a strike and claim damages, money, against the union for going on strike would be an incredible deterrent," she said. 

Ford said the National Labor Relations Act was created to protect workers' right to strike, which is one of the foundational rights of unions outlined in that law from 1935. The Supreme Court case could challenge workers' legally protected right to work stoppage.

Ford said it is impossible to predict how dramatic the decision will be. She said if the Court rules in Glacier's favor it could be a very focused ruling that only has implications in a small number of cases, or it might need to be worked out further by states.

"It would certainly raise the question with state legislators as to how or whether they have the ability to limit or adjust the kinds of causes of action that an employer might have against a union in the circumstances of a strike," she said.  

Ford noted that smaller, grassroots unions such as Starbucks Workers United have driven the historic union wave over the past year. But a ruling in Glacier's favor could be more detrimental to these less established unions.

"The cost of this kind of litigation for them, relative to their capacity, is much more dramatic than it would be for, for example, the Teamsters," she said. 

Oral arguments for this case are scheduled for January 10.