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High-Stakes Supreme Court Clash Between Growers, Farmworkers Could Blow Up Other Laws

The Supreme Court is seen beyond a razor wire-topped fence at sunrise on March 8.
Carolyn Kaster
The Supreme Court is seen beyond a razor wire-topped fence at sunrise on March 8.
Listen to the story on the arguments

California's agricultural growers square off against the farmworkers union at the Supreme Court on Monday over a nearly half-century-old law stemming from the work of famed union organizer Cesar Chavez. The law, enacted in 1975, allows union organizers limited access to farms so they can seek support from workers in forming a union.

The growers challenging the law contend that California, by giving union organizers a limited right of access to farms, is authorizing a mass trespass on the growers' private property. And that, they argue, is an unconstitutional taking of their property.

Property owners, they argue, have the right to exclude whomever they want. Either organizers should be barred from their land, they contend, or the state should pay the growers "just compensation."

The case before the court began in 2015 at Cedar Point Nursery near the Oregon border. Strawberry grower Mike Fahner calls what happened "an ambush."

In a widely circulated video, he said union organizers, without giving the required notice, showed up with bullhorns, harassing his workers. "If this were to happen in any other industry, in any other state, the people would would be expecting to be arrested and and taken away in handcuffs," Fahner said.

United Farm Workers general counsel Mario Martinez says that account is "absolutely false." He says people seen on the video circulated by Fahner and his lawyers are not union organizers but Cedar Point workers "going out on strike."

The California Agricultural Labor Relations Board investigated the events at the Cedar Point Nursery, concluded the UFW had not violated the law, and dismissed the grower's complaint. After that Cedar Point went to court, appealing all the way up to the Supreme Court.

For the union, the case is an existential threat. Farmworkers in California are seasonal, typically working for several employers during the course of the year. They arrive in town in time for the local harvest, live in motels, labor camps or with friends or relatives, then move on when the crop is picked. In practice that means organizers can gather signatures for a union election only during the relatively short harvest time at a particular site.

Because of these and other farm-specific conditions, under California's labor regulations, union organizers are permitted to meet with workers an hour before and after work and at lunchtime — all on the grower's property — for limited periods during the year. Specifically, organizers are permitted on site during those specified hours, for 30 days four times a year.

Fahner contends that California's agricultural labor law is a relic of the past.

"This law, in today's world, is no longer necessary. With social media --Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp — you can communicate with people around the world, effectively without having to have access to a person's private property and place of business," he says.

The union's Martinez calls that argument "nonsense," noting that most in the migrant workforce are undocumented, indigenous people who don't speak English, have little education, and don't have modern smartphones with access to the internet or WiFi.

"Most importantly, he asserts, "most of these workers do not know of the existence of their rights to organize and form a union. So in the UFW's experience, it's critically important to have face-to-face communications with these workers."

This is not the first time California's labor law has reached the Supreme Court.

In 1976 the California Supreme Court ruled against a similar challenge from the growers, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case. But now, with a far more conservative high court in place, the growers are trying again, and it is significant that the justices agreed this time to hear the case.

Also significant is the fact that the Trump administration sided with the growers in asking the high court to take on the case. Last month, however, the Biden administration informed the justices that the government was withdrawing the previous administration's brief.

"It is therefore the position of the United States, in line with this Court's cases, that the California regulation — like the authorization of temporary entry by government officials for law enforcement, inspection, and similar purposes --does not constitute a per se taking" of private property.

"That position," wrote acting Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, "accords with the United States' view — which the government has repeatedly articulated in this Court and lower courts" over the years.

It was a dignified version of a blunt message.

If the newly energized conservative Supreme Court majority agrees with the growers, the decision could have profound consequences for other laws — laws allowing health and safety inspectors at every level of government to enter businesses to examine how meat is butchered, whether mines are safe, how toxic chemicals are stored, whether businesses are in compliance with fire and building codes, nursing homes and hospitals are taking proper care of their patients, and on and on.

In short, a decision in favor of the the growers, arguably, could undermine many of those laws aimed at protecting not just farmworkers, but the American public.

A decision in the case is expected by summer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.