By Don Marsh, Editor
A costly stimulus plan skewed toward saving public-employee union jobs, Employee Free Choice Act twaddle, an executive order favoring project labor agreements on federal contracts and an AFL-CIO veteran's recess appointment to the National Labor Relations Board have made Washington, D.C., unusually hospitable to organized labor for 18 months and counting.
But in a decision near the close of its term, the Supreme Court showed how groups enjoying a brief window of inordinate influence on Capitol Hill and in the White House are not beyond the law of the land. Reviewing Granite Rock Co. v International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the justices unanimously found that the National Labor Relations Act does not preempt the Watsonville, Calif., producer's claims against IBT for its role in June-September 2004 strikes at concrete, aggregate and road-building sites. The finding accompanied a decision dissecting lower courts' response to disputes surrounding ratification date of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between Graniterock and Teamsters Local 287. "Graniterock describes a course of conduct that does indeed seem to strike at the heart of the collective bargaining process federal labor laws were designed to protect," writes Associate Justice Clarence Thomas in the opinion.
The Supreme Court decision and CBA ratification date are central to breach-of-contract and strike damage claims the company can now pursue against both the local and international. "The Teamsters Union decided to hold [our] Team Members hostage and use blackmail to escape responsibility for what they did. The Court obviously values the promises made in collective bargaining agreements," Graniterock Preventive Maintenance Manager Tom Treanor noted in a company statement. "Unions will be held responsible for their conduct because of the Supreme Court's decision, and the payment of damages will push their actions into the light of day."
The company seeks significant strike cost reimbursement, including employee back pay. Specific to IBT, "We are in the process of thoroughly reviewing the decision. The Supreme Court has opened the door to additional legal steps, and we will carefully evaluate those and decide on the best course," affirms Graniterock counsel Garry Mathiason, of Littler Mendelson in San Francisco.
Prior to the case's arrival at the High Court, IBT had dodged Graniterock claims in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose, and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, San Francisco. The latter, notes Graniterock attorney Kevin Jeffery, "wrongfully granted the International immunity for interfering with the contract between Graniterock and the Local. [It] said there was effectively a 'no man's land' in the law that allowed an international union to cause the violation of contracts made by its locals, and legally avoid the consequences of its bad acts. The Ninth Circuit dismissed the International from the case. The Supreme Court refused to adopt this view."
In a 7-2 ruling that accompanied their finding on IBT's legal exposure, the justices reversed the appellate court's decision (separate report, page 8) that the CBA ratification date was subject to arbitration instead of the District Court (San Jose) jury trial that had found in Graniterock's favor. During his Supreme Court nomination hearings, Chief Justice John Roberts likened judges' roles to that of umpires; in Granite Rock v IBT, he and his colleagues find reason to call union officials out on strikes.