February 10, 2016

PLF files federal challenge to agricultural union trespass regulation

By Chris Kieser Attorney

In 1975, California enacted the Agricultural Labor Relations Act principally to govern relations between the United Farm Workers union and agricultural employers. While the Union and their interests had lobbied for a provision in the Act allowing labor organizers to access private employer property to solicit worker support, the legislature did not include one. But the Act also created the Agricultural Labor Relations Board and gave the Board authority to pass regulations affecting agricultural employers. The Board did what the state legislature could not accomplish and decreed an access regulation immediately.

Because that regulation infringed their right to exclude trespassers from private property, two groups of growers in Fresno and Tulare Counties challenged it in state court as a violation of the Constitution’s Takings and Due Process Clauses. But a divided California Supreme Court upheld the regulation. In one of its most anti-property rights decisions, that court held that the right to exclude trespassers must give way in every case to the Union’s supposed right to organize on private property. The dissent rightly criticized that blanket holding and argued that “the regulation constitutes an unwarranted infringement on constitutionally protected property rights.”

As a result of that outcome, the United Farm Workers have been permitted to legally trespass on agricultural private property for the past 40 years, so long as they first file a Notice of Intent to Take Access with the Board. But recent events have encouraged our clients – Cedar Point Nursery in the small town of Dorris near the Oregon border and Fowler Packing Co. in Fresno – to renew the challenge against the access rule. This time, PLF will challenge the rule in federal court.

Cedar Point is a family-owned nursery that raises strawberry plants for sale to growers nationwide. It was in the midst of its busy harvest season this past October when the United Farm Workers staged a protest on its property, disrupting the work of over 500 employees using bullhorns and intimidation tactics. The Union was so emboldened by the access rule that it did not even serve its Notice of Intent to Take Access on Cedar Point until it had already been trespassing for several hours. And the Union accused Fowler, a packing company that handles the popular Mandarin brand “Halos,” of blocking its access rights during a three-day period in July 2015 in an unfair labor practice charge filed with the Board.

Both companies decided to seek out PLF’s help in defending their property rights from Union intrusions. PLF is mounting the first federal challenge of the access regulation. In our complaint and motion for preliminary injunction, we argue that by enforcing the regulation, the Board has committed a taking and an unreasonable seizure of our clients’ property. Government cannot grant an easement across private property for the benefit of members of the public without compensating the property owner. Nor can it permit Union activists to seize a possessory interest in property without violating the Fourth Amendment.

As the Supreme Court has repeatedly said, “[t]he power to exclude has traditionally been considered one of the most treasured strands in an owner’s bundle of property rights.” Unlike in 1975, unions now have many alternative means to reach agricultural workers – such as through social media – and do not need to trespass on private property to exercise their right to organize. Therefore, we have asked the federal courts to uphold our clients’ rights to keep union trespassers off their property.

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Cedar Point Nursery v. Gould

PLF represents California farming businesses that employ around 3,000 Californians and produce millions of dollars for California’s economy in the form of oranges, table grapes, and strawberry plants. A state Agricultural Labor Relations Board regulation – the Union Access Rule – allows union organizers to go on private land to solicit support for unionization. In 2015, union organizers entered and walked across our clients’ property during harvest time, promoting the union with bullhorns. Some workers, scared and intimidated, left the property. PLF sued, arguing that this disruptive regulation effectively takes the farmers’ property in violation of the Fifth Amendment and also violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable seizures.

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