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Supreme Court Justices Hand Farmworkers Union A Loss

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Supreme Court has once again tightened the leash on labor unions and their ability to organize workers. The spotlight was on the United Farm Workers and a California law which allowed union organizers to enter farms to speak to workers during non-working hours for a limited number of days each year. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: By a 6-3 vote along ideological lines, the conservative court majority gutted a California regulation enacted nearly 50 years ago after a campaign by famed union organizer Cesar Chavez. The court said that the law unconstitutionally appropriated private land by allowing union organizers to go on to farm property to drum up union support. The decision, however, stopped short of imposing similar restrictions on the federal labor law, and the court said its decision did not apply to government health and safety inspectors and their access to private property. Federal protections for union access to the worksite were first enacted in the 1930s, but farmworkers were excluded from the law, an exclusion that California sought to make up for nearly a half-century ago.

But after the Supreme Court's decision on Wednesday, California's regulation is, for all practical purposes, gone. Mario Martinez, general counsel for the United Farm Workers Union, contends that in the 1930s, race was the motivating factor in excluding farmworkers from the original federal law protecting union access to the workplace. And now, he says, migrant workers, some of the poorest laborers in the country, are again being left out.

MARIO MARTINEZ: You double down on that exclusion and discrimination by saying that a state law that's been in existence for almost 50 years is not respectful of the growers' rights. But, obviously, there was no discussion of the workers who are essential workers to feed America. There was no discussion of their rights at all.

TOTENBERG: Other union leaders echoed that sentiment. Nicole Berner, general counsel for the Service Employees International Union, says if workers learned anything during the pandemic, it was that they needed a union to defend their rights.

NICOLE BERNER: Farmworkers kept working to keep food on all of our tables, and now, because of today's ruling, they'll face even greater obstacles in their efforts to improve their working conditions.

TOTENBERG: Wednesday's decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said that California's regulation amounted to an appropriation of the growers' property, an unconstitutional physical taking of their land without the just compensation required by the Constitution. Joshua Thompson of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented the growers, said the court gave them exactly what they asked for.

JOSHUA THOMPSON: When the property rights are infringed by denying farms the right to choose who can come in and cannot come into their property, constitution demands that the government pay for that right.

TOTENBERG: Thompson noted accurately that some of the protections for union organizers' access enacted into the federal law in the 1930s have been eroded by the Supreme Court over time. But Wednesday's decision was only the latest in a series of decisions over the last 16 years that have aimed directly at the heart of organized labor in the United States. The culmination came in 2018, when the court hamstrung public-sector union efforts to collect partial dues from non-union members to cover the costs of collective bargaining. In that decision, the court, by a 5-4 majority, overturned a 40-year-old precedent that had allowed unions to collect limited so-called fair share fees from workers who were not in the union but who benefited from the terms of the contract that the union negotiated.

Wednesday's decision was a potentially mortal blow to the farmworkers in particular. But Mario Martinez, the union's counsel, says there are ways to fight back, from organizing boycotts through social media against particular growers to other measures, including strikes that could make it painful for the growers. UCLA law professor Katherine Stone has written multiple books on labor and employment law.

KATHERINE STONE: Whether it's going to happen within the context of the labor law or whether we're going to have a whole new era of labor warfare is an open question. If you don't have orderly mechanisms to deal with worker organizing and to deal with collective action of workers, then you get disorderly mechanisms.

TOTENBERG: Joining Chief Justice Roberts' opinion yesterday were the court's five other conservatives. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the dissent for himself and the court's two other liberals. They said that allowing temporary access to an employer's property in non-working hours is not the same thing as a physical taking of property that would require compensation. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TINGVALL TRIO'S "SPOKSTEG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.