Justices seem ready to rule against unions in farm case

FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2020, file photo, the Supreme Court is seen at sundown in Washington. The Supreme Court appears ready to side with two California agriculture businesses that want to bar labor organizers from their property. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court appeared ready Monday to side with two California agriculture businesses that want to bar labor organizers from their property, a case that could be another blow to unions.

The justices were hearing arguments in a case involving a California labor regulation put in place in 1975, following the efforts of labor leader Cesar Chavez. The regulation grants unions access to farms and other agriculture businesses in order to organize workers for up to three hours per day, 120 days per year.

Businesses are supposed to be notified before organizers arrive, and organizers are supposed to come during non-work times like lunch and before and after work. But the court's six conservative justices in particular suggested California's regulation likely goes too far.

During arguments the court heard by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the court had decades ago considered how to balance the rights of unions and property owners. The court concluded that there could be “no access unless you can show that there are no alternative means of communication that exists," he said.

And Justice Clarence Thomas wondered whether there was any difference between the regulation and a requirement to allow National Guard troops or state police to train on private property during non-business hours for up to three hours a day, 120 days a year.

While the access regulation is unique to California, unions and others say ruling for the businesses could threaten regulations that allow government to access private property to conduct workplace health and safety inspections, among other things.

That was clearly on liberal justices’ minds. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the businesses' position puts at risk the regular inspections of nuclear power plants, for example, while Justice Stephen Breyer worried about the regular inspection of coal mines. The court could also side with the businesses without making a broad ruling.

If the court does side with the businesses, it would be another hit to unions by the court under Chief Justice John Roberts. In 2018, the court's conservative majority overturned a 41-year-old pro-union decision that had allowed states to require that public employees pay some fees to unions that represent them, even if the workers choose not to join.