IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Supreme Court restricts union access to farmworkers

The ruling, concerning a California regulation that allows recruiting on farms, is the latest setback for organized labor from the high court.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday limited the ability of union organizers to enter the private property of growers in order to reach farmworkers in California.

In a 6-3 decision, the court said unions violate the Constitution when they enter a grower's private property without paying.

Two agricultural producers — a strawberry grower near the border with Oregon and a grape and citrus shipper near Fresno — went to court challenging a California regulation that allows unions to enter private agricultural land to contact farmworkers.

The rule allows 120 days of visits a year to any grower's land, in four 30-day periods, with organizing visits lasting no more than three hours — an hour each before work, during the lunch break, and after work. It was adopted in 1975, when many agricultural workers lived on the property of agricultural producers during harvests.

"The regulation appropriates a right to physically invade the growers' property," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the majority. "The access regulation amounts to simple appropriation of private property."

Roberts was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Kavanaugh wrote a concurring opinion.

The union said such visits were often the only way to reach seasonal workers who lived in temporary housing, lacked access to modern telecommunications and spoke little English.

But the growers said while those conditions may have predominated when the regulation was adopted, times have changed. Workers now typically live off site, have access to union messages through radio or their smartphones and can speak English, they said.

Giving the unions such broad access amounted to a violation of the Fifth Amendment's prohibition on taking private property without compensation, the growers argued, because the union regulation amounted to granting an easement.

Writing for himself and Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Justice Stephen Breyer dissented. He says the California regulation doesn't take anything. Instead, it regulates the employer's right to exclude others.

The ruling is the latest setback for organized labor handed down by the Supreme Court, which in 2018 dealt a major blow to unions representing millions of the nation's public employees.