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Supreme Court agrees to hear California grower’s challenge to state farm labor law

The U.S. Supreme Court building against a blue sky and clouds.
Supreme Court justices will consider whether union organizers’ right to go on agricultural land violates landowners’ private property rights.
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear a property rights challenge to a 45-year-old California labor law that allows union organizers to go on farmland to speak with workers at the start of their day or during a lunch break.

Several growers backed by the California Farm Bureau contend the law should be struck down as unconstitutional because it amounts to the government taking private property.

Lawyers for the Pacific Legal Foundation, who filed the appeal, called it a “union trespass law.”

“The Constitution forbids government from requiring you to allow unwanted strangers onto your property. And union activists are no exception,” said Joshua Thompson, a senior attorney at Pacific Legal. “California’s regulation that allows them to do so violates property owners’ fundamental right to exclude trespassers.”

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The case points to how a more conservative court could make changes in many areas of law well beyond the more familiar culture war disputes over abortion and religion.

Since the 1930s, federal labor laws have protected workers and their right to organize and join a union. But most of those laws did not protect agricultural laborers, the state’s lawyers said. That prompted California’s Legislature to adopt the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975 to protect the rights of farmworkers.

At issue in the high court now is a regulation issued shortly afterward on “the right of access by union organizers to the premises of an agricultural employer for the purpose of meeting and talking with employees and soliciting their support.”

The state’s lawyers said that this right was “limited and conditioned” and that “organizers may enter the property only for one hour before the start of work, one hour after the completion of work, and one hour during employees’ lunch break.”

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According to the challengers, the case began early one morning when union activists, yelling into bullhorns, came on to the property of the Cedar Point Nursery, which grows strawberry plants just south of the Oregon state line.

A second company, Fowler Packing Co. in Fresno, joined the suit after refusing access to union organizers. Fowler grows grapes and citrus fruit, and says it employs 1,800 to 2,500 workers in its field operations and an additional 500 at its packing facility.

“Like Cedar Point, none of Fowler’s employees live on premises, and all of its workers are fully accessible to union organizers when they are not at work,” the lawyers told the court.

The court will again consider the meaning of the 5th Amendment clause that says “private property [shall not] be taken for public use without just compensation.”

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In the past, the court has said this means the government may not take possession of private property without paying for it. However, the court has not forbid regulating property.

A federal judge and a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel, by a 2-1 vote, rejected the challenge.

“The access regulation is not a permanent physical taking” of property, and therefore does not violate the Constitution, said Judge Richard Paez for the 9th Circuit panel.

In their appeal, lawyers for Pacific Legal argued that the regulation allowed union organizers regular access to the farm property, and they compared the case to disputes over access to beaches on the California coast.

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The justices plan to hear arguments in the case, Cedar Point Nursery vs. Hassid, early next year and issue a decision by the end of June.


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