Property Rights Debated in Farmers’ Fight of Unionizing Law

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – An attorney for California farmers on Friday asked a Ninth Circuit panel to forbid agricultural union organizers from entering the farmers’ property without permission, in a case with major implications for private property rights.

Circuit Judges Edward Leavy, William Fletcher and Richard Paez gave little indication which way they were leaning at the Friday hearing, largely refraining from asking questions and instead allowing each lawyer to make their case.

Wen Fa, attorney for Cedar Point Nursery located near the California-Oregon border, said allowing labor organizers on to private property amounts to a public taking and dramatically infringes the private property rights of farm owners.

“The growers are not opposed to the union talking to their workers; it’s a question of where they talk to the workers,” Fa said during the proceedings.

Fa works for Pacific Legal Foundation, the oldest conservative-libertarian law firm that often advocates for private property rights, free enterprise, looser environmental restrictions and smaller government.

California Deputy Attorney General Matthew Wise argued on behalf of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. He said the farmers were stretching the legal definition of taking in order to make their case.

Wise said the 40-year-old California law that allows union organizers to access property without permission for one-hour periods also stipulates the activity must take place before or after work hours and must be non-disruptive.

“The purpose can be carried out in a narrow way that is not disruptive to the property interest,” Wise said.

But Cedar Point notes an incident in 2015, when United Farm Workers violated this provision and staged a protest on the grower’s property that Cedar Point says was disruptive to their business interests.

Wise said the agricultural labor board already has remedies and recourse in place for farm owners to file complaints against union organizers they believe abuse the provision, saying they could even apply to get certain unions barred from their property in the case of repeated violations.

But Fa said the farmers he represents are more interested in the constitutional implications of the case, saying the Fourth Amendment guarantees protection from illegal search and seizure and the Fifth Amendment affords the right to bar trespassers from their property unless just compensation is offered.

“Our concern is with the regulations that allow unions onto the property in the first place,” Fa said.

Fa said apart from the constitutional issues, practical matters such as crop contamination and litter should be considered.

Wise argued the case law is simply not with the growers, which is why a federal judge tossed the case this past July – prompting the appeal. Most of the cases the farmers rely on involved situations where properties were actively harmed and warranted judicial intervention, Wise said.

Fresno, California-based Fowler Packing Co. joined Cedar Point in the lawsuit.


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