In June, the Supreme Court rendered its verdict in Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters, ruling that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does not preempt state law on matters regarding claims for property damage resulting from a strike, specifically when strikers refuse to take “reasonable precautions” to protect merchandise or property. 

The court stated that although the NLRA protects striking workers’ actions in engaging in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection,” state property law preempts this policy, despite the NLRA being federal law. 

The resulting decision requires unions to take any precautions to minimize risk of harm to any employee property, with added measures for perishable goods. Aside from disruption in the flow of business being an integral aspect of striking, the additional legal protection afforded to corporate entities places greater legal responsibility on workers attempting to fight poor workplace conditions.

Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters’ verdict is one of the biggest drawbacks to the power of the labor movement since the Supreme Court ruled against sitdown strikes in 1939 with NLRB v. Fansteel Metallurgical Corp., which helped to establish the economic protections many corporations have come to rely on. Both verdicts enforce tenets of private ownership to afford greater legal power to businesses, implying a lost sense of possession of a product and thereby the spoils of labor overall for workers.

In a dissenting opinion in Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters, Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said:

“Employees have a protected right to withhold their labor. And it would undercut that right if they could be held liable for the incidental loss of the perishable goods (which includes concrete no less than raw poultry, cheese, or milk) that they tend to as part of their job.”

In the labor history of the State of Texas, workers wielding the bargaining power that comes with delegated control of production have made major strides throughout the movement. Therefore, the potential of the resurgent labor movement wanes as workers wield less legal rights over what they produce for their employer.

American Oil Company Refinery in Texas City in 1934. Photo Credit: Portal to Texas History

At the onset of the first labor unions of Texas, most strikes were driven by the bargaining chip that came with skilled labor within spaces like the printing, carpentry, and engineering industries. In the first half of the 19th century, the Texas Typographical Association and Galveston Carpenters Local 7 were among the first unions established in the state, with the latter still existing as the oldest local union in Texas history which has never been reorganized. 
Post-civil war, public opinion among whites in the south shifted against unions due to political contention with the north and all associated social concepts, including laborism. A clipping from Galveston News on June 16, 1872 reads, “We are glad to see that the City Railroad Company are now having their cars repaired. The business of the company is certainly well managed,” in an article praising North Galveston City Railroad Company and espousing the common pro-business sentiment held by Texans at the time. Attitudes in the south, in part, had cultivated a corporatist sentiment in many Texans that still exists even today.

However, the meteoric rise of industrialization and rapid urbanization in the United States in the late 19th century brought long hours, 6 or 7-day weeks, subsistence pay, no benefits, and grueling conditions. It was the necessity for a sustainable livelihood that brought unionism to Texas. And the motivation to survive brought about a fruitful allyship among Black and white workers in the Great Strike of 1877 that successfully convinced Galveston employers to raise wages to $2 a day. Equitable division was further pursued to great effect in the 1885 Dock Strike, as well.

As industries across Texas thrived at the dawn of greater economic success, the greater commodification of labor transposed the leverage held by striking workers. While the labor force grows and work becomes streamlined with the use of machinery, skill becomes less integral and therefore grants less power in negotiations for better pay/conditions for laborers. The product itself and a worker’s occupancy then becomes the most effective bargaining chip in a strike. Likewise, examples of this – as well as pushback from corporate and state entities – are common throughout Texas’ labor history.

Texas cowboy/ranch hand at work. Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

The Cowboy Strike of 1883 began in the spring, just before that season’s roundup, and waged on ranches LIT, the LX, the LS, the LE, and the T Anchor. Utilizing the greater demand for work at a crucial time, when corporations would brand and catalog their calves to get a reliable count of how many were born that year, hired hands began a work stoppage. However, despite the effort for higher wages failing after two-and-a-half months, the Cowboy Strike is noted in history as a significant example of an early working class action in the State of Texas. It also carries the distinction as one of the first Texas strikes utilizing the employer’s product itself and the flow of business to wield greater negotiating power.
The Southwest Strike of 1886 refers to a rail workers’ strike that occurred across several states in response to a 10% wage cut imposed by tycoon Jay Gould who controlled a third of the lines in Texas. As wages were already less than $2 a day and the work week was a full seven days, the pay reduction was the final straw for impoverished workers and rail service across the midwest and southwest United States was put at a stand-still.

Freight trains blocked from departing from St. Louis during the 1886 Southwest Rail Strike. Illustrated by Louis Joutel. Image Credit: Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

As the national union Knights of Labor established its presence across the country at the time, including Texas, the solidarity they cultivated among workers proved to be a powerful force. Texans comprised more than 55% of all Southwest union workers and historically took a more direct role against Gould under the leadership of Martin Irons. Attacks and destruction of property led Fort Worth City Marshal Jim Courtright and Texas Governor John Ireland to employ violence to quell the growing working class rebellion within two months, ensuring Gould’s success in quashing the strike.

Mexican women separating meat from shells. Pecan shelling plant. San Antonio, Texas. 1939. Photo by Lee Russell. Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

In 1938, Texas saw one of its most successful striking efforts in the state’s history. Combining the strength of numbers and greater control of production, the Pecan Shellers’ strike began with a walkout led by Emma B. Tenayuca, a San Antonio-born  local activist and labor organizer. While the effort was rife with conflict, such as brutal violence perpetrated by the police and criticism of Tenayuca’s status as a registered communist, the movement proved successful after three months.

If the verdict rendered by Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters were in effect at the time, all of these strikes, from the most to least successful, could’ve brought greater legal ramifications for demonstrating workers. Without the “reasonable precaution” of carrying out spring roundup for cattle, ensuring trains carrying perishable goods had met all directed destinations, and de-shelling and storing all pecans before initiating a strike, these efforts would’ve met their end earlier on with more expedient victories for corporate entities. 

Forcing workers to minimize harm to an employer’s product and avoid impeding the flow of business through this method is counterintuitive to the defined purpose of striking. Nevertheless,the resurgent labor movement of the United States continues on, utilizing any power the worker may hold to negotiate for rectification of poor pay, unethical treatment, and procedural failures in the American workplace.