U.S. Supreme Court again expands corporate power at workers’ expense

The U.S. Supreme Court has gone and done it again. They’ve set aside the will of the people in favor of the will of the corporations. In the case Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, the U.S. Supreme Court decided 6-3 that Cedar Point Nursery and Fowler Packing Co. have constitutional rights to exclude union organizers from their properties.

This decision undermines longstanding public policy enacted by the California State Legislature in the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 and implemented with regulations by the California Department of Labor. The regulation in question allows two union organizers access to the property one hour before the start of work, one hour during an employee lunch break, and one hour after work, up to four months of the year during an organizing drive, for the purpose of meeting and talking with employees and soliciting their support. Access is limited to areas where employees congregate at those times. The regulations make clear organizers can in no way interfere with the employer’s property or agricultural operations. In practice, access seldom exceeds one 30-day campaign.

Cedar Point Nursery is a strawberry farm in northern California employing more than 400 seasonal migrant workers and around 100 full-time workers. Along with its sister farm of the same name in Klamath Falls Oregon, it is a business corporation organized under Oregon law using the legal name Stateline farms, Inc. The second petitioner, Fowler Packing Co., Inc., is a Fresno-based grower and shipper of table grapes and citrus, incorporated under California Law. It employs 1,800 to 2,500 migrant workers in its field operations and around 500 in its packing facility. The United Farm Workers have been trying to organize workers at both businesses since 2015.

Contacting and organizing migrant farm workers is challenging. The UFW estimates that more than 117,000 farmworkers in California come from Indigenous communities that don’t speak English or Spanish. They often lack permanent addresses and sometimes don’t even own cellphones. The average annual total family income for farmworkers ranges from $17,500 to $30,000. With limited education and sometimes illegal status, farmworkers typically are unfamiliar with their rights under U.S. law; combined with well-founded fears of retaliation, they have few resources to vindicate their rights. Many California legislators believed that the labor law would not only afford workers better access to information and foster labor peace, but also afford public benefits such as community health, education and higher standards of living.

The court’s conservative majority held that California’s law and regulation violates the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bars the taking of private property for public use without just compensation. The dissenting justices argued that the facts of this case do not warrant application of the strong form of the “takings” clause; a more nuanced and complex weighing of factors is required. I argue that this sort of balancing of public and private interests is a policy decision best left to a representative, deliberative body like the state legislature, not a question for the courts. Furthermore, corporations are not people and are not entitled to constitutional rights. Corporations of all types — businesses, nonprofits, unions, trade associations, churches and all other artificial entities — are created under statutory law to serve our various collective purposes, and the scope of their privileges and protections must be defined in statutory law. The limited liability afforded corporate owners is a substantial benefit we grant them, with the expectation that they will conduct their affairs within the scope of their articles of incorporation, serving the purposes for which they were organized, subject to our regulatory guidelines.

If allowing very limited access to business property, in service of a duly deliberated and codified public purpose, with no demonstrable harm to the owners, if that is now to be construed as a “taking,” what else is at stake? How can we inspect and enforce workplace safety laws, food safety standards, environmental protections and nondiscrimination requirements? As one commentator observed, “If the court takes Cedar Point to its logical conclusion, we are entering a new era of black-robed rulers overriding lifesaving regulations put in place by representatives of the people.”

How can we correct the Supreme Court and change this trajectory of increasing corporate power at our expense? We need to amend the U.S. Constitution to clarify that corporations are not people, and are not entitled to constitutional rights: HJR 48, pending in the U.S. House of Representatives, will do this. Then we need to convene a broad-based commission to draft a model statute codifying in statutory law the suite of privileges and protections we want our various types of corporations to have, in order to carry out the purposes for which they were chartered.

Sharman Haley is an activist with Alaska Move to Amend.

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