The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Supreme Court strikes down Calif. regulation allowing union access to farmworkers on growers’ land

Workers sort and clean strawberry plants at Cedar Point Nursery's main operations in Dorris, Calif. (Klamath Falls Herald and News)

The Supreme Court split along ideological lines Wednesday in ruling that a California regulation that gives union organizers access to workers on the state’s farms violates the rights of the property owners.

“The access regulation grants labor organizations a right to invade the growers’ property,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for himself and the court’s other conservatives in the 6-to-3 ruling.

That is the kind of uncompensated “taking” of private property by the government that the Constitution forbids, he wrote.

At stake was a landmark law, unique to California, passed in 1975 to “ensure peace in the agricultural fields” between workers and growers. It was the first to recognize farmworkers’ collective bargaining rights, the product of the movement led by César E. Chávez, Dolores Huerta and others.

A farmer’s feud with workers union leads to high-stakes Supreme Court showdown

The state gives union organizers access, with advance notice, to growers’ property three times a day for no more than four 30-day periods in a calendar year. It restricts organizers to meeting with workers one hour before work, one hour during their lunch break and one hour after work.

In reality, California and the unions argued, organizing efforts rarely last that long.

The court’s decision was the latest in a string of setbacks for organized labor at the high court, and a long-sought victory for property rights groups.

“Today’s decision affirms that one of the most fundamental aspects of property is the right to decide who can and can’t access your property,” said Joshua Thompson, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation who argued the case on behalf of growers who contested the state’s regulation.

It was a disappointment to Victoria Hassid, who chairs California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board. She said the agency would explore “alternative avenues” to help ensure farmworkers’ rights are protected as they “often face persistent harsh living and working conditions.”

“When workers have information about their basic labor rights and are able to organize,” Hassid said in a statement, “they earn higher wages and have better and safer working conditions.”

The California Supreme Court upheld the rules on a 4-to-3 vote in 1976, and the provisions have gone unchallenged until now.

But two fruit growers — Cedar Point Nursery in Northern California and Fowler Packing in Fresno — say allowing union activists onto their property violates the constitutional prohibition against the “taking” of property by government without adequate compensation, and an owner’s ability to exclude people who are not welcome.

The case split the liberal and conservative judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which said in a narrow vote that the union-access rule did not rise to the level of an unconstitutional taking because the property access was not permanent.

The case required the Supreme Court to consider what is called the “takings clause” of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution: “Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

That applies when government takes possession of private property, such as for eminent domain. But the Supreme Court has also said it is invoked when government regulates someone’s property to such a degree that it is practically the same thing: an easement for the public to cross someone’s land to get to the beach, for instance.

Roberts said California’s regulations qualify.

“The access regulation appropriates a right to invade the growers’ property and therefore constitutes a per se physical taking,” he wrote. “The regulation grants union organizers a right to physically enter and occupy the growers’ land for three hours per day, 120 days per year.

“Rather than restraining the growers’ use of their own property, the regulation appropriates for the enjoyment of third parties the owners’ right to exclude,” he wrote.

Roberts, joined by fellow conservatives Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, said the court’s property rights opinions led to Wednesday’s decision.

“The upshot of this line of precedent is that government-authorized invasions of property — whether by plane, boat, cable, or beachcomber — are physical takings requiring just compensation,” he wrote.

He dismissed arguments from the lower courts and the dissent that intrusions that are not permanent are not covered.

“That position is insupportable as a matter of precedent and common sense,” Roberts wrote. “There is no reason the law should analyze an abrogation of the right to exclude in one manner if it extends for 365 days, but in an entirely different manner if it lasts for 364.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for himself and Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, said the decision “threatens to make many ordinary forms of regulation unusually complex or impractical.” Its attempts to create exceptions “suggests that the majority’s framework is wrong.”

He said the regulation allowing access only from time to time “makes all the difference.”

“A right to enter my woods whenever you wish is a right to use that property permanently, even if you exercise that right only on occasion,” Breyer wrote.

“A right to enter my woods only on certain occasions is not a right to use the woods permanently,” he wrote. In such a case, it is a taking only if the regulation goes “too far.”

Breyer worried that the court’s ruling would endanger any government intrusion on private property, which he said would include “activities ranging from examination of food products to inspections for compliance with preschool licensing requirements.”

Roberts again said the concern was not the same. “When the government conditions the grant of a benefit such as a permit, license, or registration on allowing access for reasonable health and safety inspections,’ it should not be difficult for such intrusions to pass constitutional muster, he wrote.

Breyer said that on remand to lower courts, California at least should have the chance to compensate the growers so as to allow the union organizers to maintain access. But the growers only want the regulations to end.

“Property owners have the fundamental right to exclude trespassers,” said Dave Puglia, president of Western Growers. “We applaud the Supreme Court for protecting the notion of private property rights as envisioned in our Constitution.”

The case is Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid.