The U.S. Supreme Court appears ready to clarify when and under what circumstances federal labor law preempts state tort claims for strike-related misconduct. Next week, it will hear oral arguments in Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local No. 174, a case involving the intentional destruction of an employer’s property. The employer, Glacier Northwest, manufactures ready-mix concrete. Ready-mix concrete hardens quickly and must be poured on the same day it’s mixed. In August 2017, a union representing Glacier’s employees called a sudden strike. The union allegedly timed the strike so that concrete would be left to harden in Glacier’s trucks. Predictably, the concrete was ruined, and Glacier sued the union for damages. But state courts rejected the suit. They held that the suit was preempted by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) because (a) the union’s conduct was arguably protected by federal law, and (b) the conduct fell outside an existing exception for intentional-tort claims because it involved no violence or “outrageous conduct.”

On January 10, the Supreme Court heard arguments on both of those conclusions. The central issue for the Court is whether the NLRA preempts intentional tort claims except when they’re accompanied by violence or outrageous conduct. The union argues that the state courts got it right: violence or outrageous conduct is necessary. Glacier, on the other hand, argues that violence or outrageous conduct has never been required. In fact, the Supreme Court itself has long recognized that intentional property destruction is unprotected and falls outside the NLRA’s preemptive reach.

Regardless of who wins that argument, the resulting decision will likely clarify the scope of NLRA preemption. And potentially, it will offer guidance on the bounds of acceptable strike-related conduct.

Join Alex MacDonald to stay informed on one of the most important cases currently before the Supreme Court.

Alex MacDonald, Director, Future of Work and Labor Law, Instacart

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