By Nick Jones, UPS Teamster, Local 174 (Personal Capacity)
The Supreme Court is poised to rule later this year on a case that could result in the largest attack on workers’ fundamental rights in decades – potentially dwarfing even the horrendous 2018 Janus v. AFSCME decision that forced all public sector jobs to become “right-to-work.”
The case is Glacier Northwest v. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the issue at hand is whether corporations could be allowed to sue unions for company losses during a strike.
In 2017, Teamsters Local 174 struck against concrete company Glacier Northwest/CalPortland for eight days, as part of contract negotiations. Negotiations were stalling, and workers rightfully took action to force the company to the table. As part of the strike, Teamsters returned concrete trucks to company property that had already been loaded with cement, before walking off the job to take part in the strike. Glacier is now arguing that workers “intentionally destroyed” company property as part of the strike because the company was not able to deliver the concrete without drivers. If this is true it would mean grocery workers striking could be held liable for spoiled food, striking auto factory workers could be sued for missed deadlines, or striking delivery drivers forced to pay for missed deliveries.
If the Court rules in the bosses’ favor, it will be an opening of Pandora’s box with bosses having free rein to put every strike through the wringer in court, potentially forcing unions to pay for all lost revenue, real or fictitious, lost during strike actions. In essence, this boils down to a direct attack on our most sacred right as workers – the right to strike. A ruling in the corporations’ favor could have a chilling effect across the whole labor movement, leaving strikes dead in the water before they’ve even begun.
The Strike is Our Ultimate Weapon
The strike is our most powerful tool to defend ourselves against the billionaires and the bosses who try to squeeze every penny from working people regardless of our basic needs for living wages or safety on the job. Strikes work because they can bring the profits of the bosses to a screeching halt. In every labor dispute, whether strike action is taken or not, the threat of our collective strike action is the only force that will make the bosses listen to our demands.
It’s not a coincidence that this case will most likely be heard in July, just as national negotiations for the country’s largest private sector union contract between the United Parcel Service (UPS) and my union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, are underway. The contract covers over 340,000 workers at a company central to the American economy, moving over 6% of US GDP. A strike at UPS would touch nearly every corner of the national economy. The ruling class is looking to avoid a head-on battle with the Teamsters by taking a backroom approach to squash the strike before it even begins.
Courts, though presented as impartial arbiters of the law, are anything but neutral. People everywhere have become more and more aware of this cold reality, not just through the forcing through of appointments of right-wing ideologues like Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, but even more recently through the damning revelations about the bottomless depths of Clarence Thomas’ corruption and ties to the billionaire class.
But this attack on our fundamental right is not just being driven by Republicans. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson said striking workers are like “the arsonist who says I’m going to walk away, but as I do, let me strike a match and burn down the factory.” Jackson was unfortunately cheerled by many labor leaders and self-described “progressives” when she was appointed by so-called “pro-labor President” Joe Biden in 2022. It’s crystal clear that this attack is a bipartisan one, and it will require mass action from workers and the union movement to defeat it.
We Need A Rank And File Fightback
It is beyond unfortunate that so far, labor leaders nationally have not made fighting back against this massive attack a top priority for the labor movement. A ruling in favor of Glacier Northwest by the Court will have seismic ramifications for workers everywhere, yet most don’t even know this is happening. A “wait and see” approach to this case, with a hostile Supreme Court, will all but guarantee a decision that deals a major setback to the fight to rebuild a strong labor movement. The approach of business unionism (“what’s good for the employer is good for the workers”), that is currently favored by most union leaderships points away from the direct class battle a strike represents, but in truth, there is no replacement in workers’ toolbelt for the strike. As workers, our ability to withhold labor is our one and only true weapon to fight back against the bosses whose only concern is profit accumulation.
The labor movement, more than ever, needs more militant strike action, not less. There is no way to “both win” for bosses and workers when the logic of profit-making means the less well-off workers are, the better shareholders do. With new unionization drives breaking out everywhere, from Starbucks to Amazon, and new questions of how to win strong contracts that actually reflect the pressing needs of workers looming, a fight against business unionism across the labor movement is an urgent necessity. Conservative labor leaders would surely use a ruling in the bosses’ favor in this case to throw as much cold water as possible on talks of strike actions and could set the labor movement back years.
Despite an alarming lack of urgency on the part of labor leaders, Workers Strike Back isn’t taking this threat laying down. Through tireless organizing here in Washington State, we passed a resolution calling for national action to defend the right to strike through the Martin Luther King County Labor Council, which represents more than 100,000 union members in King County, Washington with 97% support. Now we are building on that momentum to hold a protest on May 6th outside the Federal Courthouse in Seattle, demanding the right to strike be defended. This came about not by waiting for those at the top to take the initiative and do what’s right, but through insistent and determined rank-and-file action.
It will take massive, organized resistance to beat back this attack. Workers Strike Back is organizing a national week of action the first week of May to shine a spotlight on this attack and do everything in our power as working people to fight this assault on our most vital right.
You can find events happening around the country through the Workers’ Strike Back website. Get involved!