Opinion: Supreme Court rules to protect private property from union violence

The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of a cement company suing a union for damages highlights the issue of unions engaging in hostage-taking behavior during strikes, which not only harms employers and consumers but also the workers they claim to represent.

Elizabeth Hovde of the Washington Policy Center believes strikes not only damage employers, they damage workers

Elizabeth Hovde
Washington Policy Center

It’s not OK for unions to hold an employer or the public hostage to their demands. But they’re good at it. The hostage-taking behavior hurts not only employers and consumers — or in the case of public worker strikes, taxpayers — but it harms the very workers who unions say they represent. 

Elizabeth Hovde
Elizabeth Hovde

A recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court from Washington state illustrates the problem well. When a union’s contract had expired and negotiations broke down, the union told its members to walk off the job after drivers had loaded wet concrete into their company’s delivery trucks. Wet concrete hardens easily, and the company had to do fancy footwork to offload the concrete before it destroyed the trucks. It lost money in the process. 

Glacier Northwest, the Washington state cement company, sued the International Brotherhood of Teamsters for damages, and the case went to the high court after being dismissed in Washington state. In an 8-to-1 vote, justices ruled the unionized truck drivers endangered company equipment. 

Indeed. That was the point. 

The ruling means Glacier Northwest can pursue its lawsuit against the union in state court. The court said it was wrong to dismiss Glacier’s claims at such an early stage in proceedings, based on concern that the claims conflicted with the National Labor Relations Act, a federal law that protects union activity.

Unions know they can get better results if their actions will harm a business or public employer. It happens too often in Washington state. When public educators strike after a long summer and take away kids’ first days of school, they harm family budgets and schedules. And even though their strikes are illegal because of the public harm, teachers still get paid by taxpayers.

Hostage-taking works. That it will continue when wet cement isn’t present is why unions actually see this ruling as a win. National Public Radio explains unions are relieved that this ruling in favor of a business is narrow, generally leaving strike activity intact.

“Virtually every strike is based on timing that will hurt the employer,” Stanford Law School professor William Gould, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, told NPR. There was concern that the court would rule broadly to limit strikers. “But that didn’t happen,” Gould said. The court stopped far short of limiting the ability of strikers to get away with intentionally damaging behavior. 

That’s too bad. Strikes not only damage employers, they damage workers. In the case of public worker strikes, they often lower the public’s opinion of workers involved. They also cost governments money and harm service levels that taxpayers have been told they can expect — and do. 

Talking to public and private employers about changes to pay or work conditions, and finding new work if the result of that effort is unsatisfactory, is the appropriate path for workers. Work is a privilege as much as it is help. It represents an agreement. And unions place workers in an awkward spot with hostage-taking actions.

Elizabeth Hovde is a policy analyst and the director of the Centers for Health Care and Worker Rights at the Washington Policy Center. She is a Clark County resident.

Also read:

Receive comment notifications
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x