How Corporations Hope to Eviscerate Workers’ Right to Strike

Yves here. This post highlights a Supreme Court case that could substantially weaken laborers’ ability to strike to force management concessions by making them liable for strike costs, or more accurately in case of the plaintiff Glacier Northwest, failure to prepare for a strike. Oddly this pending ruling has gone under the radar.

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute

Joe Oliveira and his coworkers relied greatly on donations of food and gift cards after going on an unfair labor practice strike against multibillion-dollar specialty steelmaker ATI in 2021.

They cut household expenses to the bone, burned through their savings despite the public’s generous support of their cause, and held fundraisers to help one another cover mortgages and car payments during three and a half months on the picket line.

As much as the strike tested workers, however, it pressured ATI even more and ultimately enabled Oliveira and more than 1,300 other members of the United Steelworkers (USW) to secure long-overdue raises and stave off the company’s attempt to gut benefits.

Corporations so fear this kind of worker power that they’re asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rig the scales and help them kill future strikes before they even begin.

Glacier Northwest, a company in the state of Washington, sued the International Brotherhood of Teamsters seeking compensation for ready-mix concrete that went to waste amid a weeklong drivers’ strike in 2017.

The Washington Supreme Court threw out the case, but Glacier Northwest appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, betting a right-wing majority that’s already proven its animosity toward unions would seize the opportunity to kick working people once again.

Corporations anticipate that a ruling in favor of Glacier Northwest will encourage a frenzy of similarly frivolous claims against unions nationwide, bleeding precious resources and eviscerating workers’ right to strike.

The justices held arguments on the case on January 10, 2023, but it’s not known when the court will rule.

“That’s our greatest strength,” said Oliveira, vice president of USW Local 1357 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, pointing out that the right to strike helped working people over many decades win not only fair wages but also retirement security, safer working conditions, and fairness on the job.

“It’s rotten when it comes to that point,” he said. “It’s very hard on families. It’s not any fun. But I think it’s probably the greatest weapon we have in our arsenal.”

And it’s sometimes the only way to force employers like ATI to bargain in good faith.

The USW made progress toward a new contract with ATI before COVID-19 hit in 2020. But when negotiations resumed in 2021, the company demanded unnecessary concessions that not only failed to recognize the sacrifices workers made during the pandemic but also would have compounded the harm ATI inflicted on the union members with a months-long illegal lockout that began in 2015.

“There was absolutely no way we were going to go for that,” recalled Oliveira, noting his coworkers and USW members at several other ATI locations overwhelmingly authorized the strike and then stood strong together until ATI came to its senses and began bargaining in earnest.

The shared struggle brought workers even closer together.

Oliveira could scarcely believe his eyes when striking USW members from ATI locations in Ohio and Pennsylvania showed up unannounced at one of his own local’s fundraisers. They drove hundreds of miles to support their USW family.

And Oliveira recalled how his heart swelled when the president of a large Pennsylvania local—one with hundreds of members—stood up at a meeting and vowed to continue fighting until ATI agreed to job security language that the 60 union members in New Bedford urgently needed.

“He was adamant about that. It was an unbelievable moment for me. Being a small local, it meant a whole lot to us,” explained Oliveira, adding that the New Bedford representatives also “showed our integrity” by going to bat for language that workers in other locations wanted just as much. “I couldn’t be more proud to be a USW member.”

That’s exactly the kind of strength that Glacier Northwest and its pro-corporate allies hope to decimate with a Supreme Court ruling giving companies free rein to try to divide workers and suppress strikes, creating a sword that will hang over every union when its members are left with no choice but to consider striking.

Glacier Northwest failed to make adequate preparations for the strike, leaving it unable to deliver the concretethat remained in drivers’ trucks at the start of the walkout. The company now wants the union to pay for the undelivered concrete—an outrageous demand when the very purpose of a strike is to put economic pressure on unreasonable employers.

When planning a strike, unions often meet with management to discuss an orderly shutdown of operations because the workers, who care about returning to a safe plant when their strike ends, want to avoid damage to the furnaces, smelters, and other equipment where they work.

“If you’re worried about losing product, don’t be a jerk. Sit down with the union,” Oliveira said, stressing that unions strike only as a last resort.

While Glacier Northwest’s suit seeks to punish workers for striking, it’s increasingly common for employers to throw workers into the street with lockouts, refusing to let them do their jobs in an attempt to force concessions.

And Glacier Northwest’s alleged losses pale next to the harm companies intentionally inflict on workers, families, and communities during labor disputes.

After locking out about 1,200 USW members in Massachusetts in 2018, for example, National Grid brought in less experienced managers and scabs to perform the highly dangerous work of maintaining natural gas lines.

Besides depriving workers of their paychecks, National Grid callously cut off their health coverage, leaving families scrambling to care for grievously ill children.

“You’re basically just a number to them,” said one union member, explaining how National Grid ripped away his health insurance shortly after doctors found cancer in his young son’s kidney and lymph nodes.

The option to strike remains as crucial as ever, Oliveira observed, noting that employers are doubling down on union-busting efforts as more and more Americans seek to join unions in the wake of the pandemic.

An adverse decision in this case will be just another weapon that American companies will use to force their workers into less favorable contracts.

“We can’t afford to go backward,” Oliveira said. “We need to go forward. We need more rights, not less.”

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  1. hemeantwell

    This essentially takes the logic of international guarantees of corporate profit, such as the TransPacific Partnership, and extends it internally. Just as under the TPP a country that enacts legislation undermining expected profits of, say, nicotine vendors is supposed to compensate them, so workers who collectively withhold labor will be liable for the cost impact. I could see this being extended to force individual workers to give “adequate” notice before quitting. Taken together with the current strike-repressive legislation in Britain, we see the ruling class offensive shifting into a very high gear. .

    1. Questa Nota

      TPP and ISDS, may they be disinterred, drawn, quartered and paraded to the corners of the realm.
      Pike poles on back order due to supply chain issues or something.

    2. Alan Roxdale

      Good luck enforcing international treaties in the post Russia-seizure/sanctions world.
      Have you heard of a single company claiming for lost profit amidst all this?

  2. DJG, Reality Czar

    Quoting Joe Oliveira:
    New Bedford representatives also “showed our integrity” by going to bat for language that workers in other locations wanted just as much.

    Noting some things that follow from what he said:
    First, what troubles management so much is any kind of solidarity. U.S. businesses and the members of the Congress have been beating down solidarity for years. The only solidarity Nancy Pelosi feels is with stocks.

    I will also note that there is regular debate here at Naked Capitalism as to what the left is. The left supports the rights of workers to strike. It used to be that leftists didn’t cross picket lines (I’m not sure if that sign of solidarity is still observed or considered quaint). The left supports increases in minimum wage, pensions for all, and medical care pretty much free for all.

    People who want to go on about how the unions are corrupt (assuming somehow that the “market” is not corrupt) are not leftists. People who think that unions and strikes are just a tad old-fashioned are not leftists. And people who get miffed because a strike might inconvenience them are authoritarians.

    If you are looking for the mythical market to solve problems, you are a “progressive,” a “liberal,” or a member of the Republican party. Many of whom are absolutely terrified of people in the trades and the working class. Ask a waiter or waitress what life is like…

    1. Aaron

      I mostly agree, with one strong caveat. It is entirely possible to view many unions as corrupt AND simultaneously view the rebirth and strengthening of unions as a vital task to rebuild the strength of the working class.

      1. hemeantwell

        Yes. Any issue of Labor Notes or the TDU newsletter says as much.

        If this comes to pass the applicability of the concept of servitude will be hard to deny. It bumps up against the practice in late 19th c Britain in which judges would impose sentences on recalcitrant workers to carry out their labor or get thrown in jail.

      2. Bjarne

        Most of the corruption in labor unions these days is that the union mgmt is in bed with the bosses and the Dem party. The days where the mob ran the unions is long gone.

        1. ambrit

          Tossing in an English language pun here; did you mean ‘mob’ with a lower case ‘m’ or ‘Mob’ with an upper case ‘M?’
          “On the Waterfront” comes to mind. Not only an excellent film, but a very well made bit of prop-agit too.

        2. spud

          you are correct. i watched in amazement as one union after another endorsed bill clinton in 1996, even after nafta and his massive assault on the poor and minorities, let alone the deregulation.

          after 1996 the worst was yet to come, and in 2000, they endorsed free trade with china al gore, it was in the you can’t make this stuff up category, then kerry, hillary twice, obama, now biden.

          what did the union leaders expect?

          Conway has written some really good stuff going back to the huff post before they went way neo-liberal, on common dreams till atcheson mysteriously died in a accident as he was pointing out the absurdities of supporting the democratic party, now common dreams is neo-liberal, and didn’t Conway endorse nafta joe biden?

  3. timbers

    One nation, under corporations, with liberty and justice for all corporations. Amen.

    Corporations are people with constitutional rights and can form unions of sorts (de facto monopolies or otherwise but not official monopolies in name).

    People are people but without enforced constitutional rights. So in practice, The Supremes have arrived at…corporations are people with constitutional rights, people are not people and thus have no constitutional rights.

    Ex: soldiers can be forced to go to war and die, so that corporations can exercise their constitutional right to profits.

    Ex: if the Fed had said from day 1 all Covid vaccines must be fully produced and administered profit free and drug companies could not make any profits, the case would go straight to court in a high profile media saturated coverage way. If a President pink mists an American child, the Supremes will refuse to even consider the case which will minimally reported.

    Because one class of “people” has rights access and power, and the other class of people (actual people) has none of these.

    1. Questa Nota

      When I started in the work force decades ago, I decided to identify and avoid places that fit the following:

      You’re basically just a number to them

      My mantra variation was to avoid being just a box on a chart. Being valued as a human helped me and co-workers, and encouraged more creativity and productivity. Enjoying work, what a concept!

      1. ambrit

        I could always accurately judge a commercial construction jobsite by listening for laughter and ‘banter.’ If I heard no laughter by, say, lunchtime, I knew I was on an “authoritarian” jobsite. If I did hear laughter, jokes, and ‘friendly’ insult, I knew I would like the job. (“Friendly” insult deserves a post all it’s own. The social interactions, rivalries, power displays, etc. it ‘covers’ for are fascinating.)
        Proud to say I have never knowingly crossed a picket line.

        1. Questa Nota

          People could rib one another and still know that they were friends. That was a type of coping and bonding mechanism that seems to have been squeezed out of so many work places, particularly ones that were more dangerous, or monotonous. There is a price that accompanies censorship.

          My friend worked in an office where the admitted policy was to keep underlings sullen but not rebellious. The place was quite bottom-line oriented for the era, a precursor. He saw that policy play out in elevator struggle sessions and knew that a job change was needed pronto. Is writing that even permitted these days?

          1. VH

            It was a coping mechanism for sure, the joking, practical jokes, silly stuff – all were necessary to survive management – even when management was just making really stupid decisions as opposed to abusing the workforce. As a supply chain planner in many industries including steel, chemicals and medical devices for years (happily out of that for the past 7 years) and a woman, I look back and think it was amazing to have survived it at all. The discrimination in how you got paid for the same job a guy was doing was so obvious as was the sexual harassment but that part was back in the day (late 70’s) and management was not going to bother with any of the guys making comments or even trying to touch the women – as in a pat on the knee or even if they wanted to hug you. It was crazy. In the beginning I worked for 2 union organized plants out of probably about 15 companies all told – union shops were by far the best for benefits including days off and not getting totally overloaded with too much work. There were grievance processes. Though management was still a bunch of boneheads. I did make some lifelong friends and the jokes were epic. I agree, if no one is laughing and it’s dead quiet, the employees have got to be miserable and could even be at each other’s throats because management is playing favorites on top of treating a lot of people like crap.

            1. Questa Nota

              I recall walking into one interview where the employees were looking at me nervously as if trying to warn me about the psycho boss about to lie. Turns out, they were right and I planned a quick exit. Felt sorry for them and hope they were able to escape.

  4. eg

    The short sighted fools who keep on turning the screws tighter and tighter on labor are going to break something, and they and their Eloi offspring are going to make tasty eating for the Morlocks …

      1. ambrit

        And when ‘scab; workers from ‘other places’ are bought in to replace the strikers, more “kinetic” methods are resorted to. Mark my words. Someone will resurrect the old more “confrontational” methods. ‘They’ will have to.
        [Insert famous Fredrick Douglass quote here.]
        Stay safe in the desert!

    1. chris

      It seems short sighted but if you look at what’s gone down for the last 30 years the breaking hasn’t happened yet. Managers have had entire careers and retired under the assumptions that they could ignore labor demands. I don’t know what the ultimate breaking point will be or even could be to create a situation similar to what got FDR so worried. People like him and Carnegie believed that they had to do something or else there would mass revolts and the spread of Communism. I don’t think any one in power today is similarly concerned.

  5. cnchal

    Glacier Northwest failed to make adequate preparations for the strike, leaving it unable to deliver the concretethat remained in drivers’ trucks at the start of the walkout. The company now wants the union to pay for the undelivered concrete—an outrageous demand when the very purpose of a strike is to put economic pressure on unreasonable employers.

    This is misleading or moar bluntly, bullshit. The company wants the union to pay for damaged equipment when undelivered cement was left to harden in the drum. Details matter.

    All of the employees knew that would happen. Management knew that would happen and let it happen due to either stupidity or an expense they were willing to incurr so that grounds for a lawsuit against the union were solid, with the benefit of getting the losses back and weakening all unions. Perhaps that was the strategy all along with the tactics being serial management intransigence to provoke the union.

    Big business is run by psychos, what does one expect? Going to the supreme court where venal psychos beholden to big business sit and expecting a ruling favorable to unions is delusional. I hope to be wrong, but that’s the way I’m calling this one.

    Tip for union members. You need to be squeeky clean no matter how dirty your bosses are.

    1. Rod

      A month ago or so, I posted a link to Construction News that covered the strike action. According to their article any mix already in the trucks was left in the yard, with the drums turning and trucks running when the strikers walked. Management was aware and could take remediation measures like a yard dump and clean.
      The article indicated the damages were for the spoiled or already blended/batched dry concrete material and for non fulfillment costs—not for any willing mechanical damage—to be clear.
      The article indicated it was a high volume period for several large contracted projects.
      A good time to strike and make the point.

      1. cnchal

        My apologies if I didn’t get the details correct, however . . .


        The case, Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local Union 174, will be argued on Tuesday. Here are the facts: Workers who drive cement mixers grew frustrated with the pace of bargaining with their employer, Glacier Northwest, a ready-mix concrete company in Seattle. So the drivers decided to go out on strike. Drivers reported for work and those with early runs had their trucks loaded with cement. At the appointed hour for the onset of the strike, the drivers drove their trucks back to the company’s headquarters and walked off the job. For those whose trucks had already been loaded with cement but who had not yet made deliveries, they left their trucks running so the cement wouldn’t instantly harden inside the trucks’ drums. The company, however, was unable to deliver the cement and some of it hardened, requiring it be destroyed and carted away. The strike lasted one week before the parties reached agreement on a new contract.

        I have not read the lawsuit and this explanation from scotusblog infers that no drums or equipment were destroyed and somehow the cement, after it hardened in the drum was able to be gotten out.

        My recall from a previous article, apparently faulty, was that damaged equipment was included in the lawsuit. Apparently its just about cement and principles . . . er, power.

  6. Ed Grystar

    Unfortunately the top officials of the USW and the others in the AFL-CIO are the essential junior “partners” with these corporations, the real enemies of workers. They openly praise and glorify this weak tea unionism. Because they have discarded any pretense of class struggle they are incapable of organizing the necessary independent response on the job, in the community or politically since it conflicts with their “joint” labor / management mission of protecting corporate profits first. Sadly the workers will suffer but top union leaders will be rewarded for their poodle like service to capital with top appointments to government and CIA roles like the USW Int’l. rep now sitting on the NED board. Tweets and letters are all that’s allowed.

    1. JBird4049

      >>>Because they have discarded any pretense of class struggle they are incapable of organizing the necessary independent response on the job, in the community or politically since it conflicts with their “joint” labor / management mission of protecting corporate profits first.

      I have been noticing this for years and I have to ask just how does the union membership allow this? It is easy to see how the NGOs and nonprofits like the American Red Cross were turned into grifts, but I would assume that the union members would be more vigilant and effective in managing their management. Or is that is being foolish?

  7. John

    If the gang of six whisks labor relations one hundred years in the past will that mean we have to re-fight the labor wars of the 1930s and the assassinations and attempted assassinations of labor leaders like the Reuther brothers? It would be helpful if any of them had any breathed any air but that of the rarefied upper echelons of law school, law firm, judges chambers, professors offices, and finally nirvana, the Supreme Court. I have little faith in their ability to appreciate the facts on the ground.

  8. Eclair

    I already lost it once this morning, on reading Moon of Alabama’s posting of the CJR’s story of how the media (or, rather, those whom the media serve) cooked up RussiaGate.

    Now this effort by the corporate world to keep workers (or, those workers who ‘rise early,’ the ones who drive the trucks, who work the warehouses, who stock the supermarket shelves, who pick the January strawberries and the September tomatoes, who slaughter and dismember the cows and chickens, who artificially inseminate the factory pigs, who do the hands-on work of constructing the office parks and luxury condominiums, who repair the roads and highways, who plow the interstates in winter and drive the school buses, who staff and clean the emergency rooms and ICU’s), yeah, those racist, low-skilled, beer-drinking, often-‘illegal’ workers, to keep them cowed and cowering and liable to be jailed, if they so much as think of walking off the job to protest miserable working conditions.

    All this, plus the low-level, background of gunshots of the almost daily ‘mass shootings.’

    I have not felt this jumpy since the late summer of 2011, just before the outbreak of Occupy. That was peaceful.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I thought the labor unrest in the 1930s u.s. led to grudging Corporate acceptance of unions as a means of control over workers and as a means for more orderly handling of the growing worker unrest. Much of the worker unrest was manifesting as sabotage or wildcat strikes, and increasingly violent confrontations between labor and the Corporate enforcement minions — Pinkertons, bully boys, Police, and National Guard. Who will Corporate Managers negotiate with after they have kneecapped unions and completely domesticated union leaders? Does Corporate Management believe their enforcement minions can command a Corporate corvée or build Corporate Gulags?

      As the so-called multicrisis matures I am growing pessimistic about the near future. I had worried about the future my children might find — but the processes of degeneration are growing in number and accelerating beyond my worst imaginings. I grow more and more worried about my own shortening future.

      1. semper loquitur

        Wait, what? You mean the workers used force? Against the jackbooted thugs of entrenched power? Couldn’t they have reasoned with them? Wasn’t there a professional mediator available?! No counselors?!

        *collapses onto fainting couch

        1. ambrit

          We hope that your “fainting couch” is a “Union Made in America” piece of furniture. Otherwise, it’s a plain old “feinting couch.” [Which might be related to “Feintanyl,” the pain reliever of choice of the Upwardly Aspirational.]

  9. Mildred Montana

    The desire of workers to withhold their labor ought to be a right, enshrined in the constitutions of all countries. Otherwise they are merely indentured slaves.

    But of course it isn’t and never will be because it is something—perhaps the only thing—that the PTB fear if conducted on a large scale. When the PTB’s “right” to refuse workers’ demands and continue exploiting them is infringed, they appeal to government for back-to-work legislation or, as evidenced in America’s early twentieth century, bring out their private-security goons to terrorize the strikers back to work.

    The general strike is the most powerful weapon labor has. The possibility of one keeps the elite awake at night. They therefore, hand-in-hand with their government enablers, enact laws and policies designed to keep the workers poor. How’s that? Through withholding tax on wages (ever wonder why businesses and corporations are so willing and without complaint to do the government’s work for it?), excessive FICA contributions (ditto), usurious credit-card interest rates, rip-off fees on bank accounts, etc.

    The current system didn’t spring up by accident. It was *designed*, to keep workers poor, living cheque-to-cheque, and financially unable to support a general strike even if they wanted to. The PTB are, by definition, powerful and have many weapons at their disposal. The workers have only the strike or the general strike. If they can afford one.

    1. JBird4049

      General strikes and wildcat strikes are probably what is going to happen. Eventually. But until then we will have this, and it will only occur when people become angry enough to organize on a mass scale.

  10. orlbucfan

    Some Americans on here need to go back and read/review early 20th century American labor history. The situation was just like it is now, only now is a 21st century update. The Craporate Robber Barons had the workers by the balls, all black, white, brown, etc. They also bought off/owned the government. Like Bribery is something new? The workers/nascent middle class finally hit the breaking point. They exploded. It was bloody, and a lot of good folks got killed. But, it shut down business. Without all those human bodies working, the craporate parasites at the top couldn’t move forward. I could write a book fulled with horror stories about employee abuse. I spent my whole working life in Florida, the Right To Make Serfs State. I walked in those abused employee shoes. I am radical pro-union cos I never had one. But, the corruption is there, and needs to be rooted out. Just basic common sense.

    1. Questa Nota

      High School English treated us to Upton Sinclair and fellow muckrakers. That was juicy reading for callow youth and produced lively discussions. Such sentiments and reactions appear to have fallen out of fashion in the 1980s. Mentioning them could get a fella branded as a wise guy instead of a booster, donchaknow.

    2. Adam Eran

      Suggested source: Adam Hochschild’s American Midnight. Things are pretty bad now, but have been *much* worse.

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