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Supreme Court rules against labor in private property case, barring access for organizing

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WASHINGTON – In a blow to organized labor, a divided Supreme Court ruled in favor of two California fruit farmers on Wednesday who said union organizing on their orchards represented an unconstitutional taking of private property.

At issue in the case was a 1975 California law that permits union organizers to access farms 120 days a year during non-work hours to meet with employees. The farmers said the intrusion represented a taking that violated the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on the government seizing private property "without just compensation."

Six conservative justices agreed with that reasoning while the court's three liberal justices dissented.

"The access regulation grants labor organizations a right to invade the growers’ property," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the conservative majority. "It therefore constitutes a per se physical taking."

The appeal involved a specific dispute in California, but experts – including several third-party groups that filed briefs in the case – said it could have much broader national implications. In their dissent, the court's liberals questioned how the decision would affect food and workplace inspections on private property.

"In my view, the majority’s conclusion threatens to make many ordinary forms of regulation unusually complex or impractical," Associate Justice Stephen Breyer wrote.

Several of the justices appeared concerned about how a decision could affect those government inspectors during oral arguments in March. But Roberts sought in the majority opinion to draw a distinction between government inspections and what was happening with union organizing in California.

"Unlike a mere trespass, the regulation grants a formal entitlement to physically invade the growers’ land," Roberts wrote, "Unlike a law enforcement search, no traditional background principle of property law requires the growers to admit union organizers onto their premises. And 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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California’s union law grew out of efforts by César Chávez, who led strikes and marches in the 1960s and 1970s to improve conditions for farmworkers.

Farmworkers pick bok choy in a field on January 22, 2021, in Calexico, California.
Farmworkers pick bok choy in a field on January 22, 2021, in Calexico, California.

But the farmers, Cedar Point Nursery and Fowler Packaging Company, said the law has led to disruptive protests and that, if allowed to stand, would "eviscerate a landowner’s right to exclude unwanted persons from her property."

Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh pointed to an earlier case during oral arguments, a 1956 decision that barred unions from organizing on private property if labor leaders could get access to workers in some other way. Kavanaugh asserted that the farmers were asking the justices to "reinvent the wheel" despite that earlier case.

A federal district court and the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld the California law, ruling against the farmers.

The decision comes at a time when the justices have been expanding property rights, and ruling against unions. Landowners won a closely watched property rights victory at the Supreme Court in 2019 allowing a Pennsylvania woman whose land was used for access to an old burial site to seek compensation in federal court.

The court ruled against public employee unions in 2018, meanwhile, when the court's conservative majority ruled 5-4 that unions cannot collect fees from non-members to help defray the costs of collective bargaining. Those fees, permitted under a 1977 decision, violate the free speech rights of those who do not want to contribute, the court said.

Breyer and the court's other liberals took issue with the majority's assertion that the California regulation amounted to a "taking" of property.

"Technically speaking, the majority is wrong. The regulation does not appropriate anything," he wrote. "What does it do? It gives union organizers the right temporarily to invade a portion of the property owners’ land."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court backs farmers' private property rights over union access

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