Crime & Justice

In A Narrow Ruling, Supreme Court Hands Farmworkers Union A Loss

The Supreme Court found that a law that allowed farmworkers union organizers onto farm property during nonworking hours unconstitutionally appropriates private land.
The Supreme Court found that a law that allowed farmworkers union organizers onto farm property during nonworking hours unconstitutionally appropriates private land.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Updated June 23, 2021 at 1:06 PM ET

The Supreme Court on Wednesday tightened the leash on union representatives and their ability to organize farmworkers in California and elsewhere. At issue in the case was a California law that allows union organizers to enter farms to speak to workers during nonworking hours — before and after work, as well as during lunch — for a set a number of days each year.

By a 6-3 vote along ideological lines, the court ruled that the law — enacted nearly 50 years ago after a campaign by famed organizer Cesar Chavez — unconstitutionally appropriates private land by allowing organizers to go on farm property to drum up union support.

"The regulation appropriates a right to physically invade the growers' property," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court's conservative majority. "The access regulation amounts to simple appropriation of private property."

The decision is a potentially mortal blow that threatens the very existence of the farmworkers union. However, the ruling stopped short of upending other laws that allow government officials to enter private property to inspect and enforce health and safety rules that cover everything restaurants to toxic chemical sites.

Indeed, as Roberts wrote: "Under this framework, government health and safety inspection regimes will generally not constitute takings."

The court's decision on Wednesday was only the latest in a series of decisions that have aimed directly at the heart of organized labor in the United States. In 2018, the court hamstrung public-sector unions' efforts to raise money for collective bargaining. In that decision, the court by a 5-4 vote overturned a 40-year precedent that had allowed unions to collect limited "fair share" fees from workers not in the union but who benefited from the terms of the contract that the union negotiated.

The case decided by the court on Wednesday began in 2015 at Cedar Point Nursery, near the Oregon border. The nursery's owner, Mike Fahner, said union organizers entered the farm at 5 a.m. one morning, without the required notice, and began harassing his workers with bullhorns. The general counsel for the United Farm Workers, Mario Martinez, countered that the people with bullhorns were striking workers, not union organizers.

When Cedar Point filed a complaint with the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the board found no illegal behavior and dismissed the complaint. Cedar Point, joined by another California grower, appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing they should be able to exclude organizers from their farms.

Writing for the court's three liberals, Justice Stephen Breyer said the access in the case was "temporary" and so did not constitute a "taking" under the law.

The rule, he wrote , is "not functionally equivalent to the classic taking in which government directly appropriates private property or ousts the owner from his domain."

"In my view, the majority's conclusion threatens to make many ordinary forms of regulation unusually complex or impractical," he wrote.

The court's decision could be disastrous for unions in general, but especially those that represent low-income workers. The growers asserted that unions should have no problem organizing workers in the era of the internet. But many of the workers at Cedar Point don't own smartphones and don't have internet access. What's more, many speak Spanish or indigenous languages and live scattered throughout the area, in motels, in labor camps or with friends and family, often moving after just a few weeks when the seasonal harvest is over.

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