Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks during the graduation ceremony for American University's law school at American University in Washington, D.C. on May 20, 2023.

(Photo: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Justice Jackson Voices Lone Dissent Against Supreme Court Attack on Right to Strike

The Biden appointee accused the Court of overstepping its bounds in a ruling denounced by one labor leader as "shameful."

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled 8-1 in favor of a concrete company and against its striking workers, in a decision progressive advocates called "de-facto union busting."

The lone dissenting voice, liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, argued that her colleagues overstepped their authority in siding with the company instead of deferring to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

"Today, the Court falters," she wrote in her dissent.

The case dates back to 2017, when Seattle-area truck drivers belonging to Teamsters Local 174 engaged in a week-long strike against company Glacier Northwest, as The Seattle Timesexplained. At the time of the strike, the workers had wet concrete in their mixer trucks, but abandoning the trucks during the stoppage meant the cement could no longer be used and could have damaged the trucks, the company claimed.

"What Glacier seeks to do here is to shift the duty of protecting an employer's property from damage or loss incident to a strike onto the striking workers."

Glacier Northwest sued the Teamsters for damages in Washington state court, but the union argued that the suit conflicted with the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protects collective bargaining rights. The Washington State Supreme Court agreed with the workers, but the Supreme Court reversed this decision, meaning the lawsuit can proceed. Labor advocates worry that this decision could embolden other companies to file similar lawsuits against striking workers.

"The Supreme Court decision in Glacier, Inc. vs. Teamsters is the latest in a long line of examples that the conscience of this court is clearly up for sale to the highest bidder. The institution that was at one point the last line of defense for working people against oppression and corporate greed is now a bludgeon wielded against those very people by the wealthy and well-connected," Working Families Party National Director Maurice Mitchell said in a statement.

Thursday's ruling, added Mitchell, "is nothing more than a de-facto union-busting, strike-breaking tactic. It clears the way for deep-pocketed corporations to sue workers for withholding their labor in the face of exploitation and deplorable job conditions."

In her majority opinion, Justice Amy Coney Barrett argued that the NLRA did not protect the workers because "Glacier alleges that the Union took affirmative steps to endanger Glacier's property rather than reasonable precautions to mitigate that risk."

However, Jackson said the Court had historically deferred its judgment on labor cases involving a complaint pending with the NLRB, as in this case.

"[W]e have no business delving into this particular labor dispute at this time. But instead of modestly standing down, the majority eagerly inserts itself into this conflict, proceeding to opine on the propriety of the union's strike activity based on the facts alleged in the employer's state-court complaint," she wrote.

Further, Jackson expressed concern that the Court's ruling would interfere with the NLRB's development of labor law and "erode the right to strike."

Moreover, she pointed out that, in siding with Glacier, the Court was infringing on how the workers chose to carry out their right to strike.

"What Glacier seeks to do here is to shift the duty of protecting an employer's property from damage or loss incident to a strike onto the striking workers, beyond what the Board has already permitted via the reasonable-precautions principle. In my view, doing that places a significant burden on the employees' exercise of their statutory right to strike, unjustifiably undermining Congress's intent," she wrote.

Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Brett Kavanaugh, signed on to Barrett's majority opinion, while Justice Clarence Thomas authored a concurring opinion joined by Neil Gorsuch and Justice Samuel Alito filed another concurring opinion joined by Thomas and Gorsuch.

Progressive advocates and lawmakers called out the majority for its ruling. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) tweeted it was "another dangerous decision," while the Center for Popular Democracy Action said the current Court, with a right-wing majority, is one where "labor rights go to die" and argued in favor of legislation that would expand the Court to 13 justices.

"This morning, our highest court issued a ruling that makes it easier for companies to sue unions for striking," the group said in a statement.

"This is yet another example of this extremist court siding with the rich and powerful over workers—the everyday people who deserve the hard-fought right to have a union that fights for them against corporate abuses," the group continued. "More and more, we see how disconnected the Supreme Court is from the realities of communities that need and deserve good-paying union jobs to thrive. If we don't take immediate steps to expand the court by passing the Judiciary Act, we can expect these egregious decisions to continue."

Teamsters General President Sean M. O'Brien decried the Court's decision, but vowed to keep fighting.

"The Teamsters will strike any employer, when necessary, no matter their size or the depth of their pockets. Unions will never be broken by this Court or any other," O'Brien said.

"Today's shameful ruling," he continued, "is simply one more reminder that the American people cannot rely on their government or their courts to protect them. They cannot rely on their employers. We must rely on each other. We must engage in organized, collective action. We can only rely on the protections inherent in the power of our unions."

Fellow union president Manny Pastreich of 32BJ SEIU also said working people would not back down in the wake of the ruling.

While Pastreich said the majority decision was in keeping with "the current court’s hostility towards organized labor and tendency to side with multi-billion dollar corporations over the interests of working people," it was not a "'deathblow'" to the right to strike and could have been much harsher to the union.

"In fact, given the opportunity to side with the bosses and heavily curtail the right to strike and undercut the National Labor Relations Act, one of the most right-wing Supreme Courts in recent history did neither," Pastreich argued. "While this Supreme Court continues to eat away at worker rights and protections, we move forward to fight and strike whenever necessary, another day."

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