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Est. April 5, 2002
July 1, 2021 - Issue 872
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The U.S. Supreme Court last month ruled that union organizers can be kept off of farm properties to speak with field workers on their breaks or at lunch periods because doing so would be a “taking” on the part of organizers.

It’s a bit of a stretch to say that the organizers are “taking” something from the growers, just to be allowed to meet with workers in the place where they work. A taking in the legal sense usually occurs when land or property is actually taken from an owner, such as when a municipality takes a few dozen homes to build a casino, the rationale being that the casino is good for the overall economy of the community.

The court, in this case, voted 6-3 to negate the California law that for decades allowed union organizers access to the fields where the work is done, provided that the work was not disrupted. That meant the organizers could visit workers in their workplace during breaks from the deadly heat or when they stopped for sustenance at mealtimes. The California law made sense because, after an exhausting day at work under the hot sun, workers just want to seek relief and rest. But the growers and the court decided that union organizers could contact them after work or at other times. Pretty much, workers scatter and are unable to be contacted as a group outside the workplace. Growers and the court majority know this and, therefore, are striking another blow against workers and their right to unionize.

Justice Stephen Bryer, in a dissenting opinion, noted that the right to contact field workers where they are is not a “taking,” in that nothing was being taken from the grower if an organizer was allowed to walk onto the property and talk to workers. The California law allowed access, during some specified periods during the day, month, and year. It did not require permission from the grower.

Growers in California or in any other state where migrant workers are employed never wanted their workers to even think about a union or what it means to have a contract that conferred rights that the growers would have to honor. Most migrant field workers speak another language and to speak with a union organizer in their own language might give them an idea that they had labor rights under U.S. law. Growers could never be expected to explain their rights to their workers, many of whom are undocumented and live in constant fear of arrest and deportation. That condition makes for a very pliant workforce, the kind that giant fruit and vegetable corporations like.

Although mention was made in a dissenting opinion, the June ruling on the California law could have a negative effect on other instances in which entry on growers’ properties without their permission is allowed. For example, there are times for safety and compliance reasons, a government entity might enter the farm property for inspections. By definition, such entries would be most effective if done without the prior knowledge of the property owner, the grower.

Regulating agencies of the various governments, state, federal, or local, have a responsibility to see that work is being done in a safe and healthy way. That’s why there is such an agency as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Oregon OSHA is investigating the death of a farmworker, who was found “unresponsive” in a field in St. Paul because of the current heatwave that is sweeping the Pacific Northwest. The worker, from Guatemala, was said to have been in the U.S. only for a few months, according to an AP report. He reportedly had been on a crew moving irrigation lines.

There is no way to know the enormity of the problem of farmworkers exposed to excessive heat and other ongoing threats to their well-being, because no agency keeps track of the general health of the people exposed to the dangers of the workplace, only if and when they die at work. That extends to other workers, as well, but farmworkers are in particular danger, because of the amount of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that surround them unless they work on organic farms. Now, however, the killing heat being experienced in the Pacific Northwest and the West, in general, is another layer of danger for those who simply show up for work in the heat of the day.

Government agencies that are charged with ensuring a safe and healthy workplace for all workers are a positive thing, but they are not there all of the time and are not welcome much of the time by employers. The only thing that will protect workers is workers, themselves. Fellow workers will take care of each other, if they are confident of their rights and protections, especially those who live precarious lives, such as migrant workers, who fear their employer, their labor contractors, and the government, which can arrest and deport them.

Ensuring their full rights will only come with a union contract and, in the farm fields of the U.S., a contract is found only occasionally. Growers, along with other employers, have fought the unionization of workers every day of their lives and they have all of the money to do that and they have the political power to influence politicians to do their will.

The Supreme Court’s decision on property rights last week has struck another blow against workers, who need their unions to provide education about their rights and protect those rights through their union contract. As in so many cases, the court can come up with all kinds of rationales and suggest how workers can secure their rights and they can reach back for precedent on which to base their decisions. In the end, however, they are simply doing the bidding of capital against labor. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.

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is published Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble

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