Mike Fahner, who owns a strawberry nursery in Dorris, Calif., Says his business was baffled in 2015 when union organizers stormed his property at 5:00 a.m. without notice.
“We had strangers on bull horns walking up and down our corridors in our sheds,” said Fahner during a recent press conference organized by his lawyers. “It was surreal, scary, a little scary and wrong.”
Now he’s bringing his case to the Supreme Court. He opposes a California law of 1975 that would allow union organizers to gain access to farm employers’ property to speak to workers about union membership for a limited period of time.
While no other state has a similar law, the dispute puts agricultural companies against large unions and raises questions about when the government can grant access to private property without compensation.
The Biden administration supports the union’s position, a change from the Trump administration that Fahner endorsed.
California’s Union Access Act
The California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 allows union organizers to enter a company’s property three times a day, 120 days a year. The organizers are given an hour’s visit to talk to workers during the breaks.
While unions are not required to seek employer approval prior to entering the property, they must submit their intent in writing to the State Agricultural Labor Relations Board.
California has defended the law, claiming it was introduced back in 1975 because farm workers are typically inaccessible to union organizers as they sometimes wander from one harvest to the next, living in makeshift apartments and lacking modern technology and English language skills.
Fahner’s Cedar Point Nursery is represented by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, which refers to the fifth amendment, which in part says that private property cannot be used by the government for public use “without fair compensation”.
They argue that California’s ordinance, which allows union members to enter the property against the kindergarten’s will, is tantamount to “taking over” the property and the kindergarten should be compensated. In other words, they equate the visits – which allow unions access to private property – as a permanent physical invasion of property. They say it doesn’t matter that entry is only allowed for a limited period of time. For them it is important that the right of access is permanent.
“We are a foundation dedicated to the rights of private property. We believe this case is important because if the government can take over your property – without compensation – simply by limiting access, your property is no longer private.” Joshua P. Thompson, director of the Legal Talent Foundation, said in an interview.
Cedar Point Nursery employs around 100 full-time employees and around 400 seasonal workers. A second company behind this challenge is the Fowler Packing Company, which ships grapes and citrus fruits and is headquartered in Fresno.
What courts said
The lower courts ruled against the kindergarten and found that the right of access to the property according to the law does not count as “taking” as access is not permanent. The US 9th Court of Appeals found that the ordinance “did not allow casual members of the public to unpredictably traverse their property 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
In general, the courts have allowed the government to impose “use restrictions” on private property without compensation, for example in connection with zoning laws. But if the government allows a structure or person to be on the property permanently, it must compensate the owner.
If producers won, California Assistant Attorney General Joshua Patashnik argued, it would “jeopardize a number of state and federal directives that restrict access to private property for a variety of purposes, including health and safety inspections, welfare visits, and repairs.” Utilities, approve. ” and hunting and fishing. “
This position is supported by the Service Employees International Union, whose lawyers told the court that the law was necessary to “reconcile the interest in informing farm workers about the benefits of self-organization with the property interests of farm employers in their open field bring “.
The farms were backed by the Justice Department from Trump, who filed a brief with the court ahead of the elections, arguing that California law raises concerns because it is about permanent access to the land, not “sporadic, temporary invasions”.
But Elizabeth Prelogar, acting attorney general for the Biden Justice Department, recently filed a letter with the court informing judges that the government has changed its position on the case.
Prelogar stressed that California law does not raise constitutional concerns as it does not allow permanent occupation of property. “Authorized access is more temporary and inherently limited.”