SCOTUS Delivers Major Victory to Farm Owners

WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court struck down union organizers’ right to visit farmworkers on agricultural fields, ruling Wednesday that a 1975 California regulation providing such access violated growers’ private-property rights.

The decision, by a 6-3 vote along the court’s conservative-liberal divide, erases a major victory that Cesar Chavez’s farmworker movement achieved in the 1970s, when they argued the nature of agricultural labor made it too difficult to reach workers outside the fields.

The decision reinforces the high court’s commitment to private-property rights, which conservative members have viewed as under threat from overreaching regulations intended to protect environmental, recreational and, in this case, labor interests over the objection of property owners.

California adopted the access regulation in 1975 to implement the state Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which granted collective-bargaining rights to farmworkers excluded from union-organizing protection that other employees enjoy under the National Labor Relations Act.

Under the NLRA, in some circumstances when they otherwise are cut off from workers, organizers can obtain orders allowing them limited entry to employer property. The California Agricultural Labor Relations Board’s regulation grants similar access to farm property for union organizers, but rather than operating case by case the state regulation provides organizers with blanket authorization for limited periods to meet with workers on employer property during nonwork hours, as long as notice is given and other conditions are met.

The agricultural labor board reasoned that such access would generally be required to educate farmworkers about their rights, since field hands, who frequently relocate to follow the seasons of various crops, often are poor, lack basic education and can’t be reached through methods typical in other industries, such as standing outside factory gates or in front of office buildings.

While Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers union viewed the access regulation as essential for organizing, growers immediately challenged it as violating their property rights. The California Supreme Court upheld the regulation, however, and in 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take an appeal.

Two growers that have fought the UFW, Cedar Point Nursery, which raises strawberry plants in Dorris, Calif., and Fresno-based Fowler Packing Co., a major citrus and table-grape producer, brought a renewed challenge. They argued that the regulation, which allows organizers to enter their property to meet with workers during lunch hour and for one hour before and after their shifts, is a relic of the pre-digital era. Unions nowadays can organize through other means, they say, such as social media, text messages and off-site encounters.

The Supreme Court in recent years has shown itself to be more skeptical of labor rights and more protective of private property than it was in the 1970s. The Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento, Calif.-based advocacy group representing growers, argued that the access regulation, by allowing organizers to enter farm property against the owners’ wishes, amounts to a taking of private property that requires taxpayers to compensate the growers.