The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a California regulation forcing agricultural employers to allow union organizers access to their property is unconstitutional, delivering a win to business interests and advocates of private property protections.
In a 6–3 vote, the high court sided with two businesses that challenged the California rule that lets union representatives enter the grounds of an agricultural business for up to three hours a day over a 30-day period, for a total of 120 days each year, to speak with workers about supporting a union. The court found that the rule violates the Fifth Amendment, essentially by taking away owners’ right to exclude people from their property without just compensation.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing on behalf of the majority, noted in the opinion (pdf) that when “the government physically acquires private property for a public use,” the Fifth Amendment’s “takings” clause “imposes a clear and categorical obligation to provide the owner with just compensation.”
“California’s access regulation appropriates a right to invade the growers’ property and therefore constitutes a per se physical taking. Rather than restraining the growers’ use of their own property, the regulation appropriates for the enjoyment of third parties (here union organizers) the owners’ right to exclude,” Roberts wrote, noting that the right to exclude is “a fundamental element of the property right.”
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed in federal court by Cedar Point Nursery, a California strawberry grower, and Fowler Packing Co., a Fresno-based fruit shipper. The two companies argued that by giving union organizers access to their property, the regulation established a legal right to use the property without their consent and without compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The case made it to the Supreme Court after lower courts rejected the business owners’ arguments.
Mike Fahner, the owner of Cedar Point Nursery, told EpochTV’s “Crossroads” program earlier this year: “In the United States, everyone has a sovereign right—or should have the sovereign right—to determine who can and cannot come onto your property. Well, we’ve been stripped of that in agriculture in the state of California.”
“This is the most disruptive event that can happen to someone in business,” Fahner added. “The idea that strangers can come onto your property and solicit your workforce … for three hours per day, 120 days out of the year … it’s like paralysis.”
In the Supreme Court opinion, the dissenting justices argued that a ruling in favor of the business owners would jeopardize activities like health and safety inspections, an argument Roberts rejected as “unfounded” as there are other means that allow government officials to enter private property for inspections, for instance as a condition of granting licences or permits.
Fahner said that the California regulation was enacted for the sole purpose of making it possible for union organizers to communicate with workers at a time of dial-up phones, and now that cellphones have become prevalent, it’s an unnecessary burden on business owners.
“Why do they have to … come in and trample on my property to advance their agenda? They don’t need to do that,” he said.
Roberts noted in the opinion that, in ruling in favor of the business owners, the Supreme Court weighed the Constitution’s “strong protection of property rights” against the California union access law’s intent “to afford access to union organizers only when ‘needed’ … that is, when the employees live on company property and union organizers have no other reasonable means of communicating with the employees.”
Joshua Philipp contributed to this report.