The Farm Workers Ruling: A Case of Conservative versus Liberal

We have noted that not all Supreme Court rulings pit the conservatives justices against the liberal justices.  There are, indeed, some cases that have combinations of justices on each side–majority and minority–that have nothing to do with who’s conservative and who’s liberal.  There are also some cases where we see one or two of the conservatives vote with the liberals–or vice versa–sometimes surprisingly.  However, there are also some cases where the alignment is purely based on ideology, where the Republican appointees all vote one way and the Democratic appointees all vote the other.  Such was the case in the ruling issued Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid.

The question was a simple one:  whether a law in the state of California requiring farm owners to allow labor union organizers onto their land to recruit laborers into their union was constitutional.  The Court ruled, 6-3, that no, it isn’t constitutional, that it represents a government seizure of their land without just compensation.  All six Republican appointees voted for that ruling; all three justices who were appointed by either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama dissented.  Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion; Stephen Breyer wrote the dissent.

Back in 1935, as part of the Roosevelt New Deal, Congress passed the Wagner Act, or the National Labor Relations Act, requiring businesses to recognize labor unions and to bargain collectively with them and creating the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB, an independent regulatory agency).  The provisions included requiring businesses to let labor union representatives into the workplace to organize workers.  This act, like the Social Security Act, excluded farm laborers, so many of whom were southern African Americans.  In 1975, the state of California passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which extended those protections to farm workers.  The act set precise limits on the number of labor organizers who could go onto farm property and the length of time they could be there, subject to supervision by the state’s own labor relations board.

The Cedar Point ruling does not touch the provisions of the Wagner Act, but it totally strikes down the provisions of the 1975 California act that allows union organizers onto privately owned farm property for purposes of union member recruitment.  The relevant clause is from the Fifth Amendment:  “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”  In the opinion of the six Republican appointees on the Court, private property ownership involves the discretionary right to exclude persons from coming onto one’s property, and denial of that right amounts to seizure of the property owner’s land.  Chief Justice Roberts, in his majority opinion, wrote: “The access regulation appropriates a right to invade the growers’ property and therefore constitutes a per se physical taking. 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. . . .  The access regulation amounts to simple appropriation of private property.”

In deciding the case, the justices had to consider a body of case law precedents involving the definition of “taking” and also the criteria for reasonable ways in which the government can limit property owners’ use and enjoyment of their property through regulation.  Much of it hinged on the question of whether California’s law fell into the category of “taking” or mere regulation, wherein the precedents involving regulation would apply.  It was on this question that Justice Stephen Breyer differed from the conservative majority in his dissent, which Justices Kagan and Sotomayor joined.  According to precedent, when what is involved is a regulation or a temporary invasion, then the courts must consider whether the government action in question “goes too far.”  In Breyer’s view, the California law is precisely that–a regulation and a temporary invasion–and it does not “go too far.”  Breyer wrote:  “The regulation does not appropriate anything. It does not take from the owners a right to invade (whatever that might mean). It does not give the union organizations the right to exclude anyone. It does not give the government the right to exclude anyone. What does it do? It gives union organizers the right temporarily to invade a portion of the property owners’ land. It thereby limits the landowners’ right to exclude certain others. The regulation regulates (but does not appropriate) the owners’ right to exclude.”

The issue is hardly abstract.  Most farm workers in California are Latino or Indigenous.  They work long hours for low pay and are denied a lot of the basic protections that other types of workers enjoy.  United Farm Workers, founded in the 1960 by Cesar Chavez and his associates, has been working to organize these vulnerable laborers.  Their job just got harder, and this is definitely a case in which political ideology–the question of whether there is a compelling need for labor unions to be able to fight for vulnerable laborers–affected the way the justices voted.  Moreover, many feel that this ruling foreshadows future rulings that will go farther along similar lines.  It should be remembered that, in the early twentieth century, the federal courts were ruling that even minimum wage laws violated individuals’ right to the use of their property under the Fourteenth Amendment.  While there’s no expectation of a return to that, it is still felt by many that the ruling represents a rollback of labor and labor union rights, with more to come.

Full text of the ruling and the dissent

Article in Slate, June 23, 2021


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