Opinion | Do We Have to Pay Businesses to Obey the Law?

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One of those regulations, the “access rule,” gave union organizers a limited right to talk to farmworkers on company property. Up to four times a year, for 30 days at a time, properly identified organizers are allowed to approach farmworkers during their lunch breaks and for an hour before and after work.

Echoing Mr. Rolleston’s campaign against the Civil Rights Act, many agribusinesses complained that the access rule took away their property right to keep unwanted people off their land. But as in Mr. Rolleston’s case, California’s Supreme Court upheld the access rule in 1976. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed an appeal “for want of a substantial federal question.”

Now, more than 40 years later, the same access rule is back before the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the largest grape growers in the nation, the Fowler Packing Company, has prevented the United Farm Workers from meeting with workers on company land. When the union filed a complaint with the state, Fowler joined another agribusiness, Cedar Point Nursery, and sued to strike down the access rule. They again argue that California must pay them not to discriminate against union organizers.

Yet in contrast with Mr. Rolleston’s blunt language, the agribusinesses’ lawyers have so far avoided much public scrutiny by speaking high legalese. The access rule “appropriates an easement in gross without compensation,” they write. They claim that “the right to exclude is too important to be left at the mercy of government officials who will inevitably seek as much public access as possible without paying for it.”

One explanation for why the Supreme Court agreed to reconsider Mr. Rolleston’s argument in this form is that the conservative justices are in the middle of a campaign to undermine labor unions. Workplaces have long been the main forum in which organizers encourage workers to act and bargain collectively. If governments must pay businesses untold sums for each on-site organizing campaign, then governments might withdraw the meager legal protections such campaigns now receive.

That might sound great for opponents of organized labor. But Mr. Rolleston’s rule would affect far more than union organizing. For example, health and safety laws require businesses to give unwanted inspectors “access” to their workplaces. Mr. Rolleston’s rule would require the government to pay “just compensation” every time a health inspector searches for rats.

Affordable housing laws similarly require landlords to give low-income tenants “access” to their rental properties. Mr. Rolleston’s rule would require the government to pay landlords who would rather exclude these or any other tenants.

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