Unions Scramble to Gain Traction in Cannabis

By Willis Jacobson
Oct 14, 2020
Picketers in 1965

Although there are more legal cannabis workers in the U.S. than ever before, labor union leaders acknowledge they still face an uphill battle – with both employers and employees – in gaining traction in the growing industry.

Increasingly, however, workers in states with legal REC and MED markets are turning to labor unions to procure workplace protections. The industry’s emergence from the shadows also represents an opportunity for the labor movement.

Although the industry is now more mainstream than it has ever been – 33 states have legalized some form of cannabis use, and five more will vote on doing so next month – organizing a union can still be a tough sell, said Kristin Heidelbach, director of the Teamsters’ Cannabis Division in California. She blamed the resistance, which she has experienced from both workers and their bosses, on an overall lack of awareness about what unions can do.

Getting more companies and workers informed and organized, according to Heidelbach and other union leaders, will go a long way toward legitimizing an industry that is still federally illegal and dealing with negative stigmas that have permeated for decades. 

“The companies, they think that we’re going to provide some kind of unbearable oversight or that we’ll cost too much money or something,” said Heidelbach, who stressed that not all cannabis employers are anti-union. “That’s just not the case. When you have labor contracts in any industry, you’re strengthening that industry because you’re creating a job that can provide someone with a living wage and they can support their family and … put money back in the community.”

Spreading the message

There aren’t many statistics available on unionization in the cannabis industry, largely due to the relative infancy of the legal market. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Americans work in the industry.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) is the largest representative of cannabis workers, with more than 10,000 members across the country. 

About 2,000 of those workers are in California, where the UFCW began organizing cannabis workers about 10 years ago.

Jim Araby, a director of UFCW 5, which encompasses California’s San Francisco Bay Area, said he’s had mixed experiences in selling workers and employers on unions. Several older, more established companies don’t seem interested in talking to him, he said, but many others are.

California is in a unique position nationally as it, as of this year, requires cannabis companies of a certain size to enter into Labor Peace Agreements (LPA) with unions.

While an LPA is not the same as a union contract, the agreements typically require the employer to remain neutral on whether employees unionize.

Araby said the LPA requirement has forced some employers to talk to him who otherwise might not have. The result, he said, has mostly been positive for labor organizing.

“I think we’re starting to pick up momentum,” he said.

This week, UFCW 5 announced that it had negotiated a union contract for workers at Stiizy-Mission, a San Francisco dispensary. That contract, which was supported by 100% of the employees, included salary increases that average $3 per hour over the life of the contract, a pathway to full-time employment for part-time employees, employer-provided healthcare and an employer-sponsored retirement savings account.

Kat Gonzalez, a budtender at Stiizy-Mission, praised the deal in a statement released by UFCW 5.

“Every position is important in cannabis and being a part of the union ensures that budtenders are the backbone of the cannabis industry,” she said. “We are not disposable, and our jobs deserve protection. It feels great to have that recognized.” Stiizy didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Araby said UFCW 5 expects to finalize a contract with another Bay Area business this week, and has several other contracts in active negotiation.

Securing victories in those deals, he said, will be key to getting more workers on board.

“We’re winning wage increases, health insurance, retirement, and training programs for workers,” he said. “I think the more that word gets out there, the more workers are going to be like, ‘That sounds like something that’d be good for me.’”

Getting on the same page

Morgan Fox, spokesman for the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), said unionization has become a more popular topic among business owners. The NCIA represents nearly 2,000 businesses and tens of thousands of workers.

“We absolutely support the right of cannabis workers, as well as people in ancillary industries, to organize and unionize,” he said. “We are generally against closed shops, though. Employees should have the right not to join a union if they don’t want to.”

The California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA), the NCIA’s state affiliate, was embroiled in controversy earlier this year when it distributed a document that labor leaders perceived as anti-union. The document said that a labor peace agreement makes it “substantially more likely” that a union will organize and the result will be “decreased flexibility and increased costs” for employers.

Union leaders objected to the letter in March, and state Democrats called on lawmakers to freeze the CCIA out of policy discussions.

Lindsay Robinson, the head of the CCIA, apologized for the document and retracted some of its language. She said the statements did not reflect the CCIA’s guiding policies.

Teamsters director Heidelbach, though, pointed to the letter as indicative of anti-union sentiment from industry employers. While she acknowledged that some employers have been open to unionization, she said a majority of them have not.

In Massachusetts this year, a local UFCW branch filed multiple labor complaints against New England Treatment Access (NETA), one of the state’s largest cannabis operators. The company said it supports the right to unionize, but that it offers wages and benefits that eliminate the need for a union.

Heidelbach, who’s not involved in that case, said she’s heard similar statements from other companies, but that they miss the mark. She said unions benefit employers and employees by strengthening the overall industry and providing stability for workers, which can cut down on hiring and training costs.

But ultimately, she said, it’s not up to the employers or the unions.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to the workers and whether or not they understand what a labor union does – which is our job to explain to them – and for them to actually sign a card stating that they want union representation,” she said. 

There’s no time like the present to make that push, Araby said. He noted that the industry is still early in its projected growth and the contracts that are negotiated now could set standards for the future.

“It would be very sad if 20 years from now, given the origins of the cannabis industry, where it was more counter-cultural and with a sort of sharing type of economy, that it gets set up to be just another capitalist, corporate structure where very few benefit,” he said, noting the current wealth gap that is widening in America. “That would be a sad case, and I think what the unions are trying to do now is say, ‘This is a place where we can reset and redefine labor relations, so why not do it?’”

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