On June 23rd, the United States Supreme Court shifted the balance of power between those organizing farm workers and those asserting private property rights. The case stems from a conflict involving the United Farm Workers (UFW) and two California ag operations – Cedar Point Nursery and Fowler Packing Company. UFW organizers came onto the property of both operations, as is allowed under California law, to speak with farmworkers. The Cedar Point and Fowler folks did not like this much and initiated a lawsuit, claiming that the California law authorizing them to come onto their private property was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court agreed, finding that the law violated the property owners’ rights and was an unconstitutional “taking.” A longstanding principle of American jurisprudence is that private property is sacrosanct. Private property rights include not just the right to buy and sell your property, to build homes on it, to fully enjoy the view from your property, to be free of noxious smells and loud noises, but also to exclude other people from your property. These things can’t be taken away without compensation . The Supremes held here that allowing union organizers onto farm property affects that property owner’s right to exclude others, and is therefore a taking.
Before it was struck down this June, California’s regulation allowed union organizers to come onto agricultural property to speak with farmworkers and drum up union support for up to three hours per day on a total of 120 days per year. The organizers could only come onto the property when farmworkers weren’t working – either before or after work or on breaks. Permission to meet farm workers where they work was seen as essential because many workers live on farms in isolated rural areas and do not have adequate transportation to other locations where they might convene. Access to cellular service, smart phones, and the internet may also be limited, further restricting the ability to get information to and between farm workers.
Farm workers still have a state-protected right to organize – a right not protected under federal law and one only a handful of states extend. Also, union organizers can still come onto farm property if they have the owner’s permission or already have a private union contract granting them such permission. However, given the above-named access limitations of these farms, farmworker advocates are concerned that this decision will greatly reduce the effectiveness of farmworker union organizing.