U.S. Supreme Court Rules Against Union in Labor Dispute

In a dispute about the pressure that organized labor can exert during a strike, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday against unionized drivers who walked off the job with their trucks full of wet concrete.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for the majority, said the union failed to take reasonable precautions to protect the company’s concrete when the drivers went on strike. Barrett wrote that the drivers for Washington state-based Glacier Northwest quit work suddenly, putting the company’s property in “foreseeable and imminent danger.”

“The Union’s actions not only resulted in the destruction of all the concrete Glacier had prepared that day; they also posed a risk of foreseeable, aggravated, and imminent harm to Glacier’s trucks,” Barrett wrote in a decision joined by four other justices. Three more justices agreed with the outcome in the case but did not join Barrett’s opinion.

This case stemmed from contract negotiations in 2017 between Glacier Northwest and the local Teamsters union, representing the drivers. When negotiations broke down, the union called for a strike. Drivers walked off the job while their trucks were full of concrete, which must be used quickly and can damage the trucks if it’s not.

Glacier says the union timed the strike to create chaos and inflict damage. Glacier not only had to dump the concrete but also pay for the wasted concrete to be broken up and hauled away. The company sued the union in state court for intentionally damaging its property; the lawsuit was initially dismissed.

The question for the Supreme Court was about how the case should proceed. Glacier said its lawsuit in state court should not have been dismissed at the outset. The union said Glacier’s lawsuit should only be allowed to go forward in state court if the federal National Labor Relations Board first found that the union’s actions were not protected by federal law.

Barrett wrote that because the union did not take reasonable precautions to protect Glacier’s property, the trial court was wrong to think federal law required dismissing the lawsuit. By “reporting for duty and pretending as if they would deliver the concrete, the drivers prompted the creation of the perishable product. Then, they waited to walk off the job until the concrete was mixed and poured in the trucks,” Barrett wrote.


Mortgage Demand Plummets as Interest Rates Rise

The Mortgage Bankers Association’s index of mortgage applications fell 4.6% last week to the lowest level since February, according to new data published Wednesday.

“Mortgage applications declined almost five percent last week as borrowers remained sensitive to higher rates,” said Joel Kan, MBA’s deputy chief economist. “Since rates have been so volatile and for-sale inventory still scarce, we have yet to see sustained growth in purchase applications.”

Demand for refinancing also continued to plunge last week, sliding another 5%, according to the survey. Compared with the same time last year, refinance applications are down more than 40%.

The interest rate-sensitive housing market has cooled rapidly in the wake of the Federal Reserve’s aggressive tightening campaign. Policymakers already lifted the benchmark federal funds rate 10 consecutive times and have opened the door to another increase at their June meeting following a slew of stronger-than-expected economic data.

For months, higher mortgage rates have dampened consumer demand and brought down home prices. As rates have slowly fallen from a peak of 7%, the housing market has shown early signs of stirring back to life. However, the return to lower mortgage rates has not been smooth. In fact, rates moved significantly higher to start the week, according to a separate MBA survey, with rates surging to 6.91%.

Americans Owe $1 Trillion in Credit Card Debt

The nation’s credit card debt stands at $986 billion, according to the Federal Reserve. The figure has climbed by $250 billion in two years.

Just two years ago, the national credit card narrative seemed headed in the opposite direction. Card balances declined from about $850 billion at the start of 2020 to less than $750 billion in the spring of 2021, a time of pandemic penny-pinching and federal stimulus-payment largesse.

Credit card debt rose by $86 billion in the fourth quarter of 2022, the largest increase on record.

The average credit card interest rate stands at 20.92 percent. Just last spring, the average card rate was 16.65 percent.

Credit card customers fall in two distinct camps: those who pay off their balance every month, and those who do not. For consumers who never carry a balance, the interest rate doesn’t really matter, because they aren’t paying it. But that group is shrinking. Forty-six percent of cardholders carry debt from month to month, up from 39 percent a year ago, Bankrate reports.

Credit card balances typically recede in the first months of the year, as consumers leverage holiday guilt, year-end bonus funds and early tax refunds to pay down their cards. This year, that didn’t happen: The national credit card debt remained essentially flat.

And analysts expect it to rise in the months to come.

Here’s What’s in the Debt Ceiling Deal

After several weeks of tense negotiations, President Joe Biden and House Republicans have reached an agreement in principle to address the debt limit and cap spending. The bill text was released on Sunday evening.

Here’s what we know about the deal, based on the bill text, White House sources and information circulated by House Republicans.

Addresses the debt ceiling: The agreement would suspend the nation’s $31.4 trillion debt limit through January 1, 2025.

Caps non-defense spending: Under the deal, non-defense spending would remain relatively flat in fiscal 2024 and increase by 1% in fiscal 2025, after certain adjustments to appropriations were made, according to a White House official. After fiscal 2025, there would be no budget caps.

Expands work requirements: The agreement calls for temporarily broadening of work requirements for certain adults receiving food stamps. Currently, childless, able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 are only able to get food stamps for three months out of every three years unless they are employed at least 20 hours a week or meet other criteria. The agreement would increase the upper limit of the mandate to age 55 in phases, according to the bill text. However, the deal would also expand exemptions for veterans, people who are homeless and former foster youth in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as food stamps are formally known. And all the changes would end in 2030.

Claw back some Covid-19 relief funds: The deal would rescind roughly $28 billion in unobligated funds from the Covid-19 relief packages that Congress passed to respond to the pandemic, according to the House GOP.

Cut Internal Revenue Service funding: The deal would repurpose $10 billion from fiscal 2024 and another $10 billion from fiscal 2025 appropriations to be used in non-defense areas, according to the White House source. Separately, the agreement would also rescind $1.4 billion in IRS funding from the act, which the GOP describes as the full amount of funds included in the agency’s fiscal 2023 spending plan for non-taxpayer services.

Restart student loan repayments: Under the deal, borrowers would have to begin paying back their student loans at the end of the summer, as the Biden administration has already announced, according to a third source familiar with the debt ceiling talks. The pause has been in effect since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Supreme Court Rules Against EPA in Dispute over Regulating Wetlands

The Supreme Court on Thursday curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate certain wetlands that qualify as “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act, curbing what has long been seen as a key tool to protect waterways from pollution.

The high court ruled against the agency in a long-running dispute with Idaho landowners known as Sackett v. EPA. In an opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the court found that the agency’s interpretation of the wetlands covered by the Clean Water Act is “inconsistent” with the law’s text and structure, and the law extends only to “wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies of water that are ‘waters of the United States’ in their own right.”

While the majority acknowledged that weather and climate events like low tides and dry spells can cause “temporary interruptions” between bodies of waters covered by the law, the court said that wetlands protected under the Clean Water Act should be otherwise “indistinguishable” from other regulated waters.

The Supreme Court’s ruling reverses a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which sided with the EPA.

The 9th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, finding that the EPA has power over the wetlands. In its decision, the appeals court found the agency has jurisdiction over the Sacketts’ property, which it described as a “soggy residential lot,” because the wetlands on it were adjacent to a tributary that, together with another wetland complex, had a significant nexus to Priest Lake. The wetlands, the 9th Circuit found, “significantly affect the integrity of Priest Lake.”

But Alito warned that the EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Water Act, “nearly all waters and wetlands are potentially susceptible to regulation under this [significant nexus] test, putting a staggering array of landowners at risk of criminal prosecution for such mundane activities as moving dirt.”

U.S. Economic Output Reaches a 13-month High in May

The US economy is growing at the fastest pace since April 2022. That’s according to new data from S&P Global released Tuesday morning.

S&P Global’s flash US composite PMI, which captures activity in both the services and manufacturing sectors, came in at 54.5 in May, up from 53.4 in April. This marked a 13-month high for the index.

This increase was entirely driven by an uptick in the services sector. The services component of S&P’s report showed the index registered 55.1 this month, up from 53.6 in April. Manufacturing activity, however, contracted in May with the index registering 48.5, the lowest in two months.

Any reading above 50 for these indexes represents expansion in the sector; readings below 50 indicate contraction.

“The US economic expansion gathered further momentum in May, but an increasing dichotomy is evident,” wrote Chris Williamson, chief business economist at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

“While service sector companies are enjoying a surge in post-pandemic demand, especially for travel and leisure, manufacturers are struggling with over-filled warehouses and a dearth of new orders as spending is diverted from goods to services.”


Wisconsin Supreme Court to Hear Dispute over Religious Groups’ Participation in Unemployment Insurance Program

The Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear a case to determine a religious charity’s obligation to participate in the state unemployment system.

Catholic Charities Bureau, Inc., the social services arm of the Diocese of Superior, filed to be exempt from paying into the state unemployment insurance program. At the heart of this case is a question of whether that group is primarily a religious organization that does charity work — which would earn it a religious exemption — or a charity group with underlying religious principles.

One charitable group operated by the Superior Diocese, a service for people with disabilities, has already been granted such an exemption. Now the state Supreme Court will determine whether religious exemptions offered to the Diocese extend to other organizations it operates.

The initial filing from the group went through the state, with the Wisconsin Labor and Industry Review Commission and the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development arguing that the group and related nonprofits are “not operated primarily for religious purposes because they provide secular social services.”

Last year, a state appeals court upheld this argument. It determined the organization had to be religious in both function and motivation. They found that, because Catholic Charities Bureau does not evangelize, engage in worship activities or serve only Catholics, that its services cannot be defined as religious.

The state is due to file its first brief in response in two weeks. A date for arguments in the case has not been set.

State Lawmakers Unveil Package of Bills Aimed at Addressing Wisconsin’s Housing Shortage

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers recently introduced a package of bills aimed at addressing Wisconsin’s affordable housing crisis. Supporters of the legislation say the bills will target high construction costs through low- to zero-interest loans for certain housing projects, as well as make it easier for local governments to approve housing developments.

The package contains several pieces of legislation that aim to ease construction costs for developers, and renovation costs for homeowners.

The bills would establish revolving loan funds for workforce and senior housing, Main Street housing rehabilitation and turning vacant commercial buildings into new residential developments. Another bill would establish a low- to no-interest loan program for residents making improvements to homes built before 1980. All of those programs would be administered by the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.

One of the bills aims to make it harder for residents to block new housing as long as a proposed development meets existing zoning requirements. Under the bill, a municipal government must approve a residential housing development if it meets local zoning requirements.


Seasonal Weight Restrictions End for Northern Wisconsin Highways

Warmer weather has reached northern Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) is ending Spring Thaw and Class II road restrictions for 15 counties of Zone 1 on Monday, May 22 at 12:01 a.m.

Class II roads include about 1,400 miles of state highways susceptible to damage from heavy trucks during the spring thaw period as frost leaves the ground. More information regarding frozen road declarations, Class II roadways, and roadway postings can be found on WisDOT’s website. Further information also can be found online for divisible load permits and non-divisible load permits.

County highways, town roads, city and village streets may also be posted or limited to legal load limits or less. Decisions to place or lift weight restrictions on those roads are up to local units of government.

More information on overweight permits can be found on the WisDOT website by searching for oversize overweight permits. The department maintains an interactive map for seasonal weight restrictions. Haulers with specific questions can contact WisDOT’s Oversize/Overweight Permits Unit at (608) 266-7320. A recorded message with general information on road restrictions is available by calling (608) 266-8417.​

Public Service Commission: Awards $16.6 million in Broadband Expansion Grants for 24 Projects

On Thursday, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC or Commission) awarded funding from the state’s Broadband Expansion Grant Program. The Commission awarded $16,601,085 for 24 projects that will expand broadband internet to 6,042 residential and 276 business locations that are underserved. The projects receiving awards will impact 19 counties. The grant awards will leverage $25,360,858 of matching funds from recipients.

In December 2022, Governor Evers and PSC Chairperson Valcq announced the opening of the new grant round with the remaining state funds available for broadband expansion from the 2021-23 biennial budget period. In February 2023, the PSC received 74 applications requesting a total of $73.7 million.

The broadband expansion grants invest in infrastructure projects for internet service in areas of the state where people need improved service. During the application review, the Commission evaluated each grant based on, among other factors, matching funds, public-private partnerships, project impact, and economic development.

Wisconsin’s Broadband Grant Program has been nationally recognized. In August 2022, the state grant program was named “Best in Class” by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for “clear documentation of their application and award processes.” Since 2014, 458 grants have been awarded through the grant program from state and federal funding to projects impacting 71 counties.

A list of the 2023 grant recipients can be found here.