© 2021 KALW
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

SCOTUS: Union Organizers Cannot Access California Farms

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Supreme Court dealt a blow to organized labor today. The court's conservative majority declared unconstitutional a California law that allowed union organizers to meet with agricultural workers on their job sites. The law limited that access to some pretty narrowly defined times, but a fruit shipper and a strawberry plant grower, Cedar Point Nursery, objected to the regulation and sued the state. I spoke with Aaron Tang, a professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law, about the case, and he explained Cedar Point Nursery's argument against the law.

AARON TANG: They have this sort of creative argument. They say, you know what? This is a taking of my private property. And the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution says before a government can take private property, it has to pay just compensation. In other words, California has to pay us to let these union organizers onto the land.

CORNISH: So the lower courts didn't go for this, but the Supreme Court did, we should say. And Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said that, quote, "the access regulation grants labor organizers a right to invade the growers' property." I - that word caught my eye. Can you talk about how people are hearing this ruling?

TANG: Sure. I think it's very hard to read this case without seeing sort of the political undertones, which is six members of the Supreme Court are very conservative, the six who joined the chief's opinion. And they see union organizing, union activity, as a kind of invasion of the private property owner's rights, not a sort of public benefit program that has benefits for, you know, workers, for the public in general. And so I think that helps to explain a little bit the invasion language that the chief is using in this opinion.

CORNISH: So if this ruling is narrow about California and about private property, why is this a blow to organized labor? Why are people talking about it in that context?

TANG: Sure. So it's a big blow to organized labor because the logic that the court uses in this opinion applies to all unions. It doesn't just apply to strawberry growers who don't want unions on their property. It applies to Amazon warehouses. It applies to the Ford automobile manufacturer and, you know, tens of thousand other businesses where there are millions of employees in America.

CORNISH: So even though it's about this tiny California regulation, you're saying it's looking like it could apply in other places.

TANG: Yes. The same rule that California has, allowing union organizers onto agricultural property in California, the federal statute, the National Labor Relations Act, requires employers to let their pro-union workers, their pro-union employees, to stay on the property before work, after work, at lunch hours to talk, organize their coworkers, talk about the union, right? Employers have always wanted to exclude - to stop that activity, oppose that union activity. And now, they have a tool. They can say this is a taking. The government has to pay me before I can, you know, let these pro-union workers onto the property before or after work. Yeah, so there are a lot of other unions that are potentially in trouble. Their organizing activity could be much harder after this ruling.

CORNISH: Something that came up in the arguments of this case is the idea of kind of an unwanted person, right? Why is that important? Why should people pay closer attention to it?

TANG: That's a wonderful question. So union organizers are just one very small group of unwanted people that property owners may want to keep off of their land. Store - racially discriminatory storefront owners - right? - have long wanted to exclude people of color from their land. We know about stores that may want to exclude LGBTQ persons from their storefronts.

CORNISH: But it's a narrow ruling. I mean, why is it your sense that this definition won't stay narrow?

TANG: It could. And, actually, the court does try, right? The court says that, hey, maybe it's different when we're talking about sort of public accommodations - stores and restaurants that open themselves up to the public. The court says, you know, maybe once you open yourself up to the public, you have to open yourself up to all of the public. And if we take the court at its word, you know, maybe we shouldn't worry about anti-discrimination law. But what I think is - what's hard is if the right to exclude really is this important, as the court says - right? - it's not obvious why a strawberry grower's right to exclude is more important than a strawberry seller's right to exclude.

So I think this is a - this is sort of the open question. I think it's really bad for organized labor. I think it's less clear that it's going to be so bad for public accommodations. The court does really - the chief is very conscious in trying to say, hey, you know, these store shopping malls are different because they're open to the public. So that's not the reason I'm most worried about the case, it's the implications for organized labor that I think are more troubling.

CORNISH: How does this ruling fit into the bigger picture of the current court?

TANG: It definitely follows the trend line of the conservative majority on the court being opposed to organized labor, right? So three years ago, in June of 2018, the Supreme Court issued a huge decision undercutting public sector unions - teacher unions, health care worker unions - and undercutting their ability to collect dues from workers. And this is just a piece with that trend. By making it harder for unions to organize, to meet with their - the people they represent or want to represent, it just becomes that much harder for unions to collectively bargain and fight on behalf of ordinary workers.

CORNISH: We've been speaking with Aaron Tang, a professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law.

Thank you for explaining it to us.

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