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Editorial: Supreme Court undercuts California farm labor organizers

Farmworkers weeding a tomato field last year.
In a defeat for labor, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a 1975 California regulation giving union organizers limited access to farms and food processing facilities violated property owners’ rights.
(Max Whittaker / For The Times)

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority on Wednesday tossed aside a 1975 California regulation that gave farm union organizers limited access to farms and processing facilities so they could reach workers during idle hours, ruling that the practice amounted to an unconstitutional violation of a property owner’s right to deny access to others. We disagree.

The regulation, promulgated months after the state Legislature became the first in the nation to extend labor rights to agricultural workers, allows a limited number of labor activists access to non-work areas of agricultural job sites for an hour before and after the workday, and for an hour at lunch, for a maximum of 120 days a year (and no more than 30 days in a row) after notifying the property owner. The regulation is designed to make it easier for farmworkers to receive information and expertise about their right to organize and collectively bargain.

But in an opinion written for the 6-3 majority by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the court held that the regulation amounted to the government “taking” private property without compensation. The case arose in 2015 from a pair of lawsuits brought after Fowler Packing Co., a large grape and citrus grower in Fresno, barred access to union organizers and Cedar Point Nursery, a Dorris-based strawberry grower, complained that labor agitators disrupted work at its packing plant.

Yet from a practical standpoint, there was no “taking” involved. Yes, property owners have certain rights, but so do farmworkers. The historic 1935 National Labor Relations Act recognized a broad right for workers to organize, but, in a decision rooted in racism and regional politics, the act excluded farmworkers and domestic servants, jobs predominately held by Black workers, especially in the South. The 1975 landmark California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, inspired by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, sought to extend those labor rights to farmworkers here.

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Advocates argued that if the court struck down the regulation, it could call into question other incursions onto private property, including those by government health and safety inspectors seeking to ensure compliance with regulations.

Roberts wrote that such visits aren’t jeopardized by Wednesday’s ruling because “unlike standard health and safety inspections, the access regulation is not germane to any benefit provided to agricultural employers or any risk posed to the public.”

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But that reasoning doesn’t hold up. Health and safety inspections primarily benefit the public and employees, not employers; the visits are potentially more intrusive on employers’ property than the limited ones the state rules allow union organizers. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing in dissent, sided with the advocates and warned about the fallout from the majority’s logic: “In my view, the majority’s conclusion threatens to make many ordinary forms of regulation unusually complex or impractical.”

Giving labor organizers limited access to farms and processing facilities solely to talk with workers strikes a proper balance between the rights and interests of the property owners and those of the people they employ. But the conservative majority, which has undercut labor rights in several recent rulings, didn’t see a need for balance.

This decision does not end labor rights in the fields, of course. It just makes it more difficult for members of a predominately nonwhite and non-English-speaking work force to exercise those rights, once again signaling to working Americans that at least before this Supreme Court, the deck is stacked against them.


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