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U.S. Supreme Court Issues Decision Undermining Workers’ Rights Under ALRA

July 15, 2021 by

On June 23, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision undermining workers’ rights under California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). The ALRA was passed over 40 years ago in order to rectify agricultural workers’ exclusion from the federal National Labor Relations Act, enabling such workers to organize under state law. The state statute permitted the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to promulgate regulations giving effect to the protections of the ALRA. One such regulation permitted a limited number of union organizers to talk to workers on an employer’s property, but only outside of working hours and only a limited number of times during each year. Two growers sued, seeking an injunction on the grounds that the regulation constituted an impermissible taking of their property without compensation in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.

A conservative majority of the Court, led by Chief Justice Roberts, held that permitting such access was an unconstitutional infringement on employers’ property rights. The majority held that the regulation effectively acquired private property for a public use and thus constituted a taking of private property. The Court held that the regulation ran afoul of a property owner’s “right to exclude.”

Justice Breyer, along with Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, dissented. The dissent argued that the regulation did not physically appropriate property, as in the traditional takings cases; it merely regulated the employers’ property rights. Importantly, the dissent raised the issue of the appropriate remedy. It correctly pointed out that the usual remedy for a taking of property by the government is “just compensation,” not the enjoining of an otherwise duly promulgate regulation (as the growers had sought). The dissent pointed out that, on remand, California should have the choice of foreclosing injunctive relief by providing compensation. This leaves open the possibility that the regulation will not necessarily be invalidated, depending on the State’s response to the decision.

Regardless of the fate of the ALRA regulation, the Court’s expansive view of what constitutes an appropriation of property and of the “right to exclude” presumably will apply with equal force to government-authorized union access to private, non-agricultural property in California. The decision turned not upon anything particular to the ALRA, but instead was grounded in federal constitutional principles of general application. That said, the Court left the seminal decision in PruneYard Shopping Center v. Robins, 447 U. S. 74 (1980), intact, distinguishing it on the ground that the property at issue in that case was generally open to the public.

Beeson Tayer & Bodine shareholder Robert P. Bonsall co-authored an amicus brief in this case, which can be read here.

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