In August 2017, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Local 174) was negotiating a new contract with concrete company Glacier Northwest. Concrete truck drivers reported to work, turned on their trucks, left the full containers of wet concrete in the parking lot, and walked out on strike. Without enough personnel or proper training, management salvaged a few trucks but 16 were rendered useless when the concrete eventually hardened. Glacier Northwest was forced to reschedule that day’s pour and paid GLY Construction Inc. $100,000 for the delay.
After three days of striking, the Teamsters won a strong contract with medical coverage for active employees, pension increases, and improved work rules. Glacier Northwest sued the Teamsters for damages in December 2017 in retaliation. When the Washington State court dismissed the case, the company filed with the Court of Appeals, and the case eventually made it to the Supreme Court of the United States.
The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) did not preempt state court lawsuits against a union if the union did not take “reasonable” precautions to avoid damage to the company’s property during a labor dispute. The decision gave Glacier the green light to sue the Teamsters for damages again at the state level.
Although the decision does not hold the Teamsters responsible for all costs the company claims are associated with the strike, it’s still a vicious attack against the right to strike intended to intimidate unions amid increased union organizing and strike activity.
The Teamsters are considered one of the country’s most powerful and militant unions. The foundation of the union’s power as an industrial union was built on the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934, when over three thousand Teamsters went on strike, leading to a general strike that shut down Minneapolis, MN.
In the 1930s, recovering from the all-time low in union membership and living standards during the Great Depression, socialists, and other union activists led major strikes in largely non-union industries. They used tactics including mass pickets; the physical confrontation of scabs, police, and other strikebreakers; workplace occupations; and secondary and even general strikes. Many strikes worked with and built organizations of unemployed workers and auxiliaries that mobilized family members and other union supporters to support strikes and other actions.
The West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike, the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike, the Toledo Auto-lite Strike, and the Flint Sit-down Strike are all examples of the battles which helped transform the US labor movement. These efforts resulted in rapid unionization of the previously unorganized auto and steel industries and mass unionization efforts in major cities across the country. Such battles transformed the Teamsters into a truly national union.
Over the 20th century, violence and repressive anti-union laws were common and red-baiting efforts targeted unions that didn’t accept government restrictions on how they could fight for the working class. McCarthy-era repression drove militant socialist leadership out of the unions or underground and replaced it with conservative labor leadership with illusions of peaceful coexistence with corporate bosses. There have been fewer and fewer battles on the scale of Minneapolis in 1934 or other mass strike actions, including general strikes and workplace occupations in the years since. The working class experienced a corresponding decline in union membership, power, and living standards without militant leadership or tactics.
The most successful recent labor battles have started to defy legal restrictions and conservative union leadership, as did the illegal wildcat strike by West Virginian educators in 2018. The labor movement needs to find ways to overcome these obstacles. If it does, unions will become an even bigger pole of attraction for those looking to fight back against corporate greed in every form, leading to mass recruitment and organizing opportunities.
In 2023, with historically low union density, major industries almost untouched by unions, and labor strongholds hollowed out, the workers’ movement needs to bring back the fighting tactics of the 1930s and prepare to defy anti-union laws with workers’ power once again.
The Teamsters’ strike against Glacier Northwest was a step taken in the right direction for the labor movement because they started to defy “playing by the rules.” The company was not notified of the strike action and, therefore, could not prepare. Workers clocked in, drove off with concrete in the trucks, and returned only ten minutes later to form a picket line. Management could not perform the job, and the company did not have time to hire scabs, making this strike all the more effective.
Ruling Class on the Offensive
The capitalist class has recently launched a new offensive against the labor movement. Amazon fired a Retail, Warehouse, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) organizer at the Bessemer location, defeated Amazon Labor Union (ALU) organizing attempts in multiple union elections, and continues to refuse to negotiate a first contract at the Staten Island warehouse, which voted to unionize.
Starbucks refuses to negotiate with the hundreds of stores that voted to unionize. Yellow Trucking is looking to sue the Teamsters for $137 million in “damages,” blaming the union for their bankruptcy by refusing to agree to job cuts—despite receiving a $700 million pandemic bailout.
Joe Biden continues to claim to be the most “pro-union president in history.” Yet Biden and the Democratic Party acted quickly to impose a concessionary contract and outlawed a potential strike by freight railroad workers fighting back against major problems in the industry. Shortly after, the East Palestine, OH, derailment and other freight rail disasters highlighted the unresolved issues.
The promise of pro-labor legislation called the “PRO Act” was used to convince labor leaders to support Biden in 2020 but was never seriously pursued by Biden and the Democrats in Congress. The federal government ended various policies that temporarily helped some workers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government now blames inflation on wage increases and manipulates interest rates to make it more difficult for workers to borrow or afford inflated prices. Working people are becoming more financially vulnerable and possibly willing to settle for low-paid, precarious jobs.
For the last several decades, the leadership of the labor movement overwhelmingly accepted the norms and rules that the NLRA, Taft Hartley, and other anti-union legislation established to divide and weaken unions. Labor law and regulatory bodies are designed to keep conflicts between the working class and the capitalist class limited in scope, demands, and tactics and to foster a business-unionist outlook among union leaders.
The long decline of union membership in the US to today’s record lows directly relates to the unwillingness of the union leadership to fight for bold demands using proven, militant tactics. The labor movement must revive strikes for union recognition and also historically effective job actions that labor law now deems “illegal” such as “sympathy” or solidarity strikes, workplace occupations, and general strikes.
Right now, unions are hugely popular. Workers see them as a way to fight back against the rising cost of living, stagnant wages, plummeting living standards, and bad working conditions. As more workers try to join unions and fight for strong contracts, they will come into conflict with the union leadership. Labor leaders most often try to keep effective tactics off the table by citing labor law instead of challenging it, collaborating with the corporations rather than fighting them, and continuing with tactics that have resulted in unions representing only one in ten workers in the US. Socialists consistently raise that there is no truce between capital and labor, only a class struggle between the owners and the workers.
The capitalist media and ruling class want the Glacier Supreme Court decision to reinforce their repressive labor laws and make an example of a local union that stepped “out of bounds.” It is no mistake that the court reached this decision shortly before the strike deadline in the battle between the Teamsters and UPS. 350,000 UPS workers going on strike in a key logistics operation could have a massive economic effect. The capitalist class wants to restrict any strike action to the pro-business rules laid out by labor law, giving UPS an edge in defeating the country’s largest private sector union workforce and cutting across increased union organizing and militancy.
Labor Needs a Political Counter to Political Attacks
Many unions issued statements denouncing the Supreme Court decision, some even saying that unions can’t allow themselves to be held back by restrictive labor laws. But none of the major unions have a real political strategy to fight back against this political attack on the right to strike.
The labor movement needs a political strategy to defend and extend the right to strike and reverse anti-union laws. The statements from union leaders will not prevent the Glacier decision from having a chilling effect on labor struggles. Workers will feel less confident about taking strike action if labor leaders use anti-union court decisions and anti-union laws as excuses not to fight. The labor movement needs a two-pronged approach to organize new industries and re-organize old ones.
First, the US labor movement must break from the Democratic Party. For far too long, union political strategy has been to give money, votes, and volunteers to the Democratic Party in exchange for vague promises of pro-labor legislation. However, as demonstrated by the Employee Free Choice Act and Wall Street bailouts under Obama, the Railway Labor Act’s use and the PRO Act’s failure under Biden, the Democratic Party’s ultimate loyalty is always to the capitalist class. The anti-union Glacier decision was an 8-1 Supreme Court ruling that united Republican and Democratic justices.
The labor movement has the resources and potential power to play a leading role in starting a political party for working people. A workers’ party could be accountable to the workers’ movement through internal democracy, where member unions, organizations, and individual party members determine what the party stands for and does.
A workers’ party could democratically nominate candidates and hold them accountable through measures like the right to recall and a pledge to only accept the average wage of a worker if elected. A workers’ party could unite unions, provide a concrete way for non-union workers to be organized and mobilized, and create opportunities to reach out to the majority of workers with a program of demands to improve living standards for working people immediately.
A workers’ party could fight for immediate reforms like a much higher minimum wage as well as larger political battles to repeal anti-union laws and abolish and replace undemocratic bodies like the Senate and Supreme Court. Highlighted by recent rulings which repealed Roe v. Wade, rejected a student loan forgiveness plan, and attacked anti-discrimination laws, no nine-person unelected and unaccountable body should ever have the power to make such unpopular, dangerous, and wide-reaching attacks on workers and civil rights. See previous articles, including “The Supreme Court and US ‘Democracy”
Second, the labor movement needs to begin to take aggressive, militant action against the assault on workers’ standards of living. Legality is a matter of power. The ruling class sets up laws to strengthen their economic and political power. Their confidence to restrict the right to strike, join a union, or other civil rights comes from having the upper hand in the class war between workers and capitalists.
By fighting to organize new workplaces and win strong contracts using tactics that rely on the strength of ordinary rank-and-file workers, the labor movement can win huge gains in wages, benefits, and better working conditions. With a powerful enough workers’ movement, anti-union laws can be ignored and overturned. This is how protections have been won historically and how they can be won again.
The current labor leadership argues that a strong labor movement is impossible to build until anti-union laws are overturned, and so justifies lobbying corporate politicians, supporting either of the two corporate political parties and accepting “a seat at the table” on capitalist government bodies. In reality, this puts the cart before the horse. Only through mass union and political action can we overturn anti-union laws and win legal protections for workers’ rights. The working class can still overcome the Glacier vs. Teamsters decision.