U.S. Supreme Court Sets Limit on New Jersey Workers’ Rights During Strikes

New Jersey employment laws at both the state and federal levels protect a wide range of workers’ rights. When federal and state laws seem to conflict with one another, federal law often supersedes state law, although, this is not always the case. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled on a preemption question related to labor rights. A group of workers and their union argued that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which guarantees workers’ right to self-organization for collective bargaining purposes, preempted a property damage claim that the employer brought against the union. Unfortunately, the court ruled in the employer’s favor in Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174, meaning that the court set a limit on the protection that the NLRA offers.

The NLRA protects the rights of workers to organize themselves into unions or join existing unions, and to engage in activities related to organizing, collective bargaining, and “other mutual aid or protection.” Workers also have the right to refrain from union-related activities. The statute prohibits both employers and unions from interfering with employees’ rights or coercing them. Once employees have formed or chosen a union to represent them, their employer must negotiate with that union in good faith on employment issues.

Because the NLRA is a federal statute, its provisions might preempt some state law claims. The doctrine of federal preemption is based on the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states that federal law is “the supreme Law of the Land,” regardless of whether state laws say something different.

A common example of federal preemption in employment law involves arbitration clauses in employment contracts. New Jersey and many other states have enacted laws that limit employers’ ability to require employees to agree to arbitration of disputes. Multiple courts have ruled that the Federal Arbitration Act, which allows the broad use of arbitration clauses, preempts those state laws. In that type of situation, federal preemption tended to help employers. The recent case before the Supreme Court sought to use preemption to benefit employees.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Glacier Northwest involved a lawsuit filed by an employer in state court against a union for alleged property damage. The employer, which operates a fleet of concrete mixer trucks, claimed that the union deliberately waited until the trucks were full of wet concrete mix to call a strike. The rotating drums on the trucks keep the liquid mixture moving, but given enough time, the concrete will still harden. The company claimed that, by calling the strike when it did, the union caused significant damage to its vehicles.

The union claimed that the strike was legal, and the NLRA, therefore, preempted the state law claim. It cited a 1959 Supreme Court decision, San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, which held that “​​the NLRA preempts state law even when the two only arguably conflict.” The court rejected this argument in an 8-1 decision. It held that the right to strike is “not absolute” under the NLRA, and that the statute might not protect striking workers “who fail to take ‘reasonable precautions’ to protect their employer’s property.”

If your employer has harmed you by engaging in acts that you believe violate state or federal law, an experienced and knowledgeable employment lawyer can help you assert a claim and recover damages. The Resnick Law Group advocates for New Jersey and New York workers whose employers have violated their legal rights. Please contact us online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997 today to schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our team.

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