A person holds a microphone and stands on a rock while addressing a group of strikers.

How a Supreme Court Case Could Threaten Workers’ Rights

Today, the Supreme Court will hear Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a case that could dramatically affect the right of U.S. workers to organize and go on strike. The showdown between business owners, the Supreme Court, and unions is crucial because the strike—employees’ coordinated refusal to work—is one of the most powerful weapons workers have to resist exploitation and improve their conditions. 

Forty workers at Glacier Northwest, a concrete company, went on strike during contract negotiations. Drivers who walked off the job left their trucks running so the concrete in them wouldn’t harden, preventing damage to the trucks. Though the trucks were unharmed, the company lost money on the undelivered concrete. It filed charges against the workers’ union, the Teamsters, for the “damage” to its property incurred during the strike (Slate).

TAKE ACTION

• Support workers’ centers like Voz and grassroots labor unions like the Industrial Workers of the World

Talk to your coworkers about making a positive change at your job.

To recap: workers went on a legally protected strike, as is their right under U.S. federal law. When they left work, they made sure to not damage company property. They didn’t commit extralegal acts like vandalism, sabotage, or property occupations that other workers have used to win significant victories. Their boss still wants their union to pay for the concrete wasted while workers were (legally) on strike. The only way for the concrete to not have been wasted would presumably be for the workers to never strike in the first place. 

The legal right to strike will be decimated if the labor union has to pay for this concrete. “Many industries involve products that can spoil,” ask Terri Gerstein and Jenny Hunter. “Could any workers on the food chain—farm, factory, supermarket, restaurants—strike without facing devastating lawsuits from employers, based on spoilage of food if the employer has no contingency plans?” (Slate). If the Court rules in favor of Glacier, workers might retain the right to strike on paper, but unions could be so intimidated by potential economic liability that they never support their members in exercising that right. 

An anti-worker ruling that robs working people of an “essential weapon” is expected from the Supreme Court, and unions and advocates are bracing for its impact (CBS News). The administration of the self-described “most pro-union president” filed a brief that failed to support the union’s case. Now, despite “historic levels of worker organizing and public support for unions,” the federal government is poised to “slow or reverse that momentum” through judicial fiat. 

Does this mean we should abandon worker organizing as a lost cause? Before giving up hope, we should take a step back and look at the broader historical context. 

The first recorded strike in U.S. history was in 1768 in New York (History). As workers organized throughout the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, labor unions were criminal organizations under U.S. law. They only became legally protected with 1935’s National Labor Relation Act, though their power was severely limited in the process (History). That means labor unions in the territory of the United States have been organized outside the law for twice as long as they’ve been organized legally. 

The legal protections offered or denied to formal labor unions don’t change the importance of coming together to demand economic justice and democratic control of our working lives. If pre-1935 workers had waited to be given permission by the government to form unions, they never would have gotten it in the first place. Regardless of the Court’s decision, we should support working-class organizations like grassroots labor unions and workers’ centers. Instead of trying to carve out better working conditions for ourselves, we should demand improved conditions and pay transparency for all of our coworkers.

Existing labor unions are just one set of tools in an urgent fight against an indefensible enemy: the economic system which has made the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, a country where most people are just one crisis away from becoming unhoused (Sacramento Observer, Huffington Post) and one in four Black children live in poverty (EconoFact). “A true revolution of values,” said Dr. King, “will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth” (Common Dreams). Despite the efforts of the Supreme Court, the Biden administration, and the business owners they protect, poor and working people will continue coming together in solidarity to fight their exploiters and bring Dr. King’s unfulfilled revolution to fruition. The fight doesn’t end at the Supreme Court, and union organizing can’t, either.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

• The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling holding labor unions broadly responsible for the economic impacts of strikes. 

• This ruling would impede workers from using one of their most powerful tactics in labor disputes. 

• We should remember that workers have, and will continue, to organize without legal support or protection.

1280 960 Andrew Lee
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Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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