Supreme Court Reminds Us That The Bosses Own The Law

Image Credit: Fred Schilling

Before the 1960s, California Farmworkers had no legal right to organize. But their determined struggles beginning in the mid ‘60s and the early ‘70s forced the growers and the State of California to recognize their union. Farmworkers were often housed on land belonging to the farm owner, keeping them isolated from union organizers. A law passed in California gave union organizers the right to enter the growers’ lands so they could talk to the workers. On June 23 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the California law unconstitutional, and gave the farm owners the right to bar union organizers from their lands.

The Court decided that the Fifth Amendment in the Bill of Rights gives property owners the right to keep anyone off their property unless it is open to the public, like a store or a restaurant. Since lettuce farms and other work places are not generally open to the public the Court ruled that the Government can’t pass a law giving union organizers the right to talk to the workers over the objection of the boss.

This Supreme Court ruling is nothing new. Property rights are firmly embedded in the Constitution. For example, the Supreme Court long ago ruled that freedom of speech stops at the door of the workplace. Whatever legal rights workers have won have to be framed as exceptions to the general rule that the constitution gives property owners the right to control on their property. Consequently, the courts have a history of cutting away at workers’ rights when they think the workers are too weak to fight back.

The big workers’ struggles that got unions established were successful because workers were ready to defy unjust laws and face down the police and the national guard troops that were called out to enforce them. Civil rights laws, including voting rights, were won when Black people rose up in mass actions. Much of this history is hidden or forgotten but it’s a guide to what we will have to do if anything is going to change for the better.