Courts Labor Rights

Union Organizers No Longer Able to Speak to Workers on Farm Property, Supreme Court Rules

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court decided that a California law allowing unions to talk to agricultural workers on farm property is unconstitutional. The ruling is a major blow to union organizers and migratory farmworkers.  

In 1975, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act was passed to remedy the difficulty unions frequently faced reaching migrant workers, who must move to different worksites often and are rarely in a permanent location. It allowed California union organizers to meet with farmworkers on growers’ property three times a day during nonworking hours for 120 days out of the year.

Cedar Point Nursery, a strawberry growing business, and Fowler Packing Company, a citrus and grape shipping business, challenged the law in 2016. They claimed the law was equivalent to the government seizing private property without offering just compensation in return.  The complaint was dismissed in the lower courts and then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The 6-3 decision ruled in favor of the growers, saying that the law violated their property rights. Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the decision, wrote that the “access regulation grants labor organizations a right to invade the growers’ property. It therefore constitutes a per se physical taking.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan dissented from the majority opinion. Breyer, in his dissent, wrote “the majority’s conclusion threatens to make many ordinary forms of regulation unusually complex or impractical.” He argued that the law is “not functionally equivalent to the classic taking in which government directly appropriates private property or ousts the owner from his domain.”

The decision has received criticism from labor organizers across the country. Beth Lyon, director of Cornell’s Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic, noted the profound vulnerability and lack of protections that farmworkers must face. “The agricultural industry has one of the nation’s highest percentages of hired child labor, undocumented work, human trafficking, and workplace injury and fatality, including deaths from COVID-19.”

Mario Martinez, who works as general counsel for the United Farmworkers Union, said that the ruling fails to recognize the rights of farmworkers. “You double down on that exclusion and discrimination by saying that a state law that’s been in existence for almost 50 years is not respectful of the growers’ rights. But there was no discussion of the workers who are essential workers to feed America. There was no discussion of their rights at all.”

Sources: Supreme Court 6/23/21; CNN 6/23/21; The New York Times 6/24/21; NPR 6/24/21

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