The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Supreme Court struck down a key United Farm Workers win. The decision has some infamous echoes.

Four things to know about a ruling that could endanger many government regulations.

The U.S. Supreme Court. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
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On June 23, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to organized labor. In Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, the court ruled that a California regulation that enabled labor organizers to meet with workers on large farms violated farm owners’ property rights. The case was brought by the owners of Cedar Point Nursery, a strawberry grower, and Fowler Packing Co., a grower and shipper of grapes and citrus. The farm owners argued that the California regulation requiring they allow labor organizers to enter their properties amounted to an unconstitutional taking of their property without just compensation, and the Supreme Court agreed. Here are four things to know about the Cedar Point Nursery decision.

1. Cedar Point Nursery eliminates a signature achievement of César Chávez’s United Farm Workers movement

The case deals with the constitutionality of a nearly 50-year-old California regulation enacted in the wake of César Chávez’s farmworkers’ movement, pitting the rights of property owners against the rights of workers. In the 1960s, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers organized to combat the grueling and exploitative practices of large farm owners. The union led boycotts and strikes that prompted the state of California to pass the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975.

As part of the act, California created an Agricultural Labor Relations Board. One of the board’s most significant regulations — and the one eliminated by Cedar Point Nursery — requires employers to allow labor organizers access to their property. Under the regulation, employers are required to allow union organizers to enter their property for four months each year for three nonconsecutive hours outside of the workday (one hour before the start of work, one hour during lunch break, and one hour after work). The Agricultural Labor Relations Board argued that the regulation was necessary to enable unions to organize seasonal farmworkers, who live in dispersed areas and are only present on employer property for a few weeks at a time.

Without the regulation, unions lose much of their ability to help farmworkers organize to fight employer exploitation. Farmworkers in the United States are vulnerable to some of the most egregious human rights abuses in the country, including sexual violence and harassment, child labor, wage theft, illness and death. Unions are some of the most effective tools farmworkers have for fighting abusive labor practices. But with Cedar Point Nursery, the court’s conservative majority has dealt what could be a mortal blow to their ability to organize and combat abuses by finding that employers have a “right to exclude” labor organizers from their property.

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2. The court’s ruling is narrow, but it has potentially broad implications

The Fifth Amendment says the government cannot “take” private property for public use without just compensation. In Cedar Point Nursery, the Supreme Court ruled that this clause protects a “right to exclude” groups from private property. The majority was careful to carve out exemptions to its ruling. For example, the majority opinion notes that the ruling does not prohibit government health and safety inspectors from entering private property to grant benefits such as permits and licenses and does not prohibit law enforcement from entering property while in pursuit of a crime.

The result is a narrow ruling that, nevertheless, is based in logic that could later be applied to a host of government regulations of businesses.

3. The ruling could compromise anti-discrimination and fair housing laws

Legal academics like Niko Bowie of Harvard Law School point out that the Supreme Court’s reasoning could compromise anti-discrimination laws, fair housing laws and health and safety regulations of businesses. Bowie shows how White segregationists in the 1960s used the same legal reasoning the Supreme Court does in Cedar Point Nursery.

In the Supreme Court case Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, segregationists used the takings clause to challenge the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits businesses from discriminating on the basis of race. Segregationists contended that laws requiring them to serve Blacks amounted to a taking of their property without just compensation because these laws violated their “right to exclude.”

Justices disagreed, responding that the takings clause only applies to complete seizures of land. As other legal analysts have noted, the Roberts Court seems to contradict this Supreme Court precedent in Cedar Point Nursery, finding that even temporary intrusions on property violate the “right to exclude.”

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4. The Roberts Court’s rulings on labor echo the infamous Lochner-era decisions

Cedar Point Nursery is not the first antilabor decision to emerge from the Roberts Court. In Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the court overruled 40 years of precedent to hold that public sector unions cannot require employees to pay union dues. And in Epic Systems Corp v. Lewis, the court found that companies can use arbitration clauses in employment contracts to bar workers from suing them collectively.

Some scholars have noted that the court’s new line of reasoning is reminiscent of opinions from the early 1900s. This time period was characterized by antilabor decisions and is commonly referred to as the Lochner era, after the infamous Supreme Court case Lochner v. New York, which struck down a New York statute that had established maximum work hours for bakers.

During the Lochner era, the judiciary often issued hostile labor decisions like Adair v. United States, which enabled employers to blacklist members of unions, and Loewe v. Lawlor, which allowed the government to use the Sherman Antitrust Act to suppress labor boycotts. In fact, pro-labor legislation faced such a degree of animosity that labor leaders turned to state constitutions to circumvent the federal courts.

Cedar Point Nursery is consistent with these recent antilabor opinions and a sign that the court is returning to an era characterized by judicial opinions that curtailed workers’ rights.

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Erin Mayo Adam (@erinadam0) is an assistant professor of political science at Hunter College, City University of New York; director of the LGBTQ Policy Center at the Roosevelt House; and the author of “Queer Alliances: How Power Shapes Political Movement Formation” (Stanford University Press, 2020)

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