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Kern growers applaud high court ruling challenging California labor law | News

Kern County growers welcomed — and the United Farm Workers union shrugged off — a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Wednesday that sided with California agriculture businesses in their challenge to a state regulation giving unions access to private property in order to organize workers.

The 6-3 ruling along ideological lines was another potential setback for unions as a result of a high court decision. In response, California will have to modify or abandon the regulation put in place in 1975 following work by iconic Kern County labor leader Cesar Chavez.

“The access regulation amounts to simple appropriation of private property,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the conservative members of the court.

At issue was a regulation that granted unions access to farms and other agriculture businesses for up to three hours per day, 120 days per year, in order to organize workers. Businesses are supposed to be notified before organizers arrive, and organizers are supposed to come during nonwork times such as lunch and before and after work.

The businesses that brought the case to the court argued that California’s regulation was unconstitutional, outdated and unnecessary given that unions can now reach workers many ways, including via smartphone and radio.

The president of the Kern County Farm Bureau hailed Wednesday’s ruling as an important victory for private property owners and said farmers have for too long endured government-sanctioned intrusions that violate their rights under the 5th and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

“Farmers pride themselves in being efficient and responsible stewards of the land, and strong private property rights is something we take seriously as they are core to our ability to feed and clothe the nation and beyond,” President John C. Moore III said by email.

A representative of the UFW emphasized the union will continue to organize farmworkers in spite of the obstacles. She said meetings with farmworkers in the coming days will guide the organization’s next steps.

 Elizabeth Strater, the union’s director of strategic campaigns, added by email that the UFW does not view the ruling as a mortal blow to any organization — certainly not the UFW — but that “exact techniques may change.”

“At the end of the day, the farmworker movement has always been a David and Goliath (battle),” she said. “And this is just one stone that has been taken away from us. But we still have a slingshot.”

California’s access regulation is unique nationwide. But unions and others had argued that ruling for the businesses could threaten regulations granting the government access to private property for conducting workplace health and safety inspections, among other things.

The ruling is the latest hit to unions by the court under Roberts. In 2018, the court’s conservative majority overturned a 41-year-old pro-union decision that had allowed states to require that public employees pay some fees to unions that represent them, even if the workers choose not to join.

Still, it’s unclear how much will change as a result of the court’s ruling.

California had said that union organizers use the regulation “sparingly” — only five times in the 2019-2020 budget year and 24 times in 2018-2019. Still, the United Farmworkers of America told the justices that the regulation is more necessary now than ever. The union said farmworkers are increasingly indigenous workers from Mexico and the only effective way to communicate with them is in person at their job sites.

In court documents filed before President Joe Biden took office, the Trump administration had urged the justices to side with the businesses. The Biden administration later changed the government’s position.

The case the justices ruled in involved Fowler Packing Co. in Fresno, which ships grapes and citrus, and Cedar Point Nursery in Dorris, which grows strawberry plants for commercial growers.

Union organizers used California’s regulation to go on to Cedar Point’s property in 2015. That same year, union organizers complained Fowler Packing interfered with their ability to enter company property for three days. That complaint was later withdrawn.

Central Valley ag industry leaders thanked Cedar Point and Fowler Packing for its work on the case.

Jon P. Zaninovich, president of Delano-based Jasmine Vineyards, said by text the company appreciates the diligence of the court and the persistence of industry members “who saw this fight through until the end.”

“Today’s ruling protects the rights of private landowners and aligns California’s access rule with that of the National Labor Relations Act,” he stated. “We appreciate the due diligence of the court and the persistence of industry members who saw this fight through until the end”

Dave Puglia, president and CEO of Western Growers, a 95-year-old association representing growers across four states including California, characterized California’s access rule as a state-sponsored taking of property rights without just compensation.

He said by email property owners have a fundamental right to exclude trespassers.

“This is a simply property rights case,” he wrote. “We applaud the Supreme Court for protecting the notion of private property rights as envisioned in our Constitution. We also commend Cedar Point Nursery, Fowler Packing Co. and the Pacific Legal Foundation team for seeing this case through to its unequivocal conclusion.”

The California Fresh Fruit Association, a public policy organization representing the state’s growers, packers and shippers, said the high court’s ruling ends a 45-year violation of California farmers’ property rights.

“No other industry in the United States, including California, has had to allow union organizers onto their property in a similar manner,” association President Ian LeMay said by email.

— Staff writer John Cox and the Associate Press contributed to this report.

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