SCOTUS: Union organizers can’t access California farms



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The Supreme Court dealt unions a hard blow today. The Conservative majority in court ruled unconstitutional a California law that allowed union organizers to meet with farm workers on their construction sites. The law restricted that access to fairly narrowly defined periods of time, but a fruit shipper and strawberry grower, Cedar Point Nursery, opposed the settlement and sued the state. I spoke about the case with Aaron Tang, a professor at the Davis School of Law at the University of California, and he explained Cedar Point Nursery’s argument against the law.

AARON TANG: They have that kind of creative argument. They say, you know what? This is a take from my private property. And the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution says that before a government can take private property, it must pay fair compensation. In other words, California has to pay us to let these union organizers get on the ground.

CORNISH: So the lower courts didn’t go for that, but the Supreme Court did, we should say. And Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said that, I quote, “the access regulations give labor organizers the right to invade producer property.” I – that word got my attention. Can you talk about how people hear this decision?

TANG: Of course. I think it’s very difficult to read this case without seeing some kind of political nuance, which is that six members of the Supreme Court are very conservative, the six who agreed with the leader’s opinion. And they see union organizing, union activity, as some kind of invasion of private landlord rights, not some kind of public policy program that benefits, you know, workers, the general public. And so I think that helps explain a bit of the invading language that the leader uses in this opinion.

CORNISH: So if this decision is narrow about California and private property, why is it a big blow to the unions? Why are people talking about it in this context?

TANG: Of course. So it is a blow to the unions because the logic that the tribunal uses in this opinion applies to all unions. This doesn’t just apply to strawberry growers who don’t want unions on their property. It applies to Amazon warehouses. This applies to the automaker Ford and, you know, tens of thousands of other companies with millions of employees in America.

CORNISH: So even though it’s this little California regulation, you’re saying it looks like it could apply to other places.

TANG: Yes. The same rule as California, allowing union organizers on farm property in California, federal law, the National Labor Relations Act, requires employers to let their pro-union workers, their pro-union employees, stay on property before work, after work, at lunch time to discuss, organize their colleagues, talk about the union, right? Employers have always wanted to exclude – to stop this activity, to oppose this union activity. And now they have a tool. They can say it’s a catch. The government has to pay me before I can, you know, let these pro-union workers come into the property before or after work. Yes, so there are a lot of other unions that are potentially in trouble. Their organizational activity could be much more difficult after this decision.

CORNISH: Something that has come out in the arguments in this case is the idea of ​​some kind of unwanted person, right? Why is this important? Why should people pay more attention to it?

TANG: That’s a wonderful question. So union organizers are just a tiny bunch of unwanted people that landowners may want to get off their land. Store – racially discriminatory storefront owners – right? – have long wanted to exclude people of color from their land. We know of stores that might want to exclude LGBTQ people from their storefronts.

CORNISH: But it’s a narrow decision. I mean, why do you think this definition won’t stay narrow?

TANG: It’s possible. And, in fact, the court is trying, isn’t it? The court says, hey, maybe it’s different when we’re talking about types of public accommodation – stores and restaurants that open to the public. The court says, you know, maybe once you’ve opened up to the public, you’ve got to open up to the general public. And if we take the court at its word, you know, maybe we shouldn’t care about anti-discrimination law. But what I’m thinking is – what’s difficult is whether the right to exclude is really important, as the court says – isn’t it? – it is not obvious that the right of exclusion of a strawberry producer is more important than the right of exclusion of a seller of strawberries.

So I think that’s a – that’s kind of the open question. I think it’s really bad for organized work. I think it’s less clear that it’s going to be so bad for public housing. The court really does – the chef is very conscious trying to say, hey, you know, these malls are different because they’re open to the public. So that’s not why I’m most worried about this case, it’s the implications for unions that I think are more troubling.

CORNISH: How does this decision fit into the whole of the current court?

TANG: This definitely follows the tendency of the conservative majority on the ground to oppose organized labor, doesn’t it? So three years ago, in June 2018, the Supreme Court issued a massive ruling undermining public sector unions – teachers’ unions, healthcare workers’ unions – and undermining their ability to collect workers’ contributions. And this is just one piece with this trend. By making it harder for unions to organize, to meet their – the people they represent or want to represent, it becomes all the more difficult for unions to collectively bargain and fight on behalf of ordinary workers.

CORNISH: We spoke with Aaron Tang, professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law.

Thank you for explaining it to us.

TANG: Thank you very much for having me, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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