Photo by Stephen Panosian via Weedmaps

For Labor Day 2020, a look at the union fighting for cannabis workers while enhancing the professionalism of the industry

In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 64 — the Control, Regulate, and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act. A provision requires licensed cannabis businesses with 20 or more employees to enter into a “labor peace agreement” with an appropriate union.

That means that a cannabis business — let’s say a dispensary — must allow a labor union to come into the workplace and make a pitch promoting the union to the employees — without interference from the employer. The employer commits not to hamper the union’s attempt to organize and represent the employees. In return, the union pledges not to set up a picket line, organize a boycott, or promote activities that disrupt work while the union is courting the workers.

To be clear: an LPA does not automatically guarantee that the dispensary will “go union.” Only a vote by the employees will make that happen. The LPA sets an initial tone of respect and civility between both parties at the onset of the relationship.

The labor peace agreement provision of Prop 64 has been in effect for almost four years in the Golden State. The trouble was, no one knew when the process had to begin or how long after a business hired its 20th employee did the clock start ticking and employers could be penalized for non-compliance. The law was amended and now clearly states that businesses have 60 days once they reach the 20th employee threshold to invite the union over.

California isn’t the only state using LPAs in the cannabis space. New York requires them, too. Other states are taking notice, especially in union-centric jurisdiction like Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Most of these states have seen LPAs in action in other industries. Chicago, for example, has a major Labor Peace Agreement with O’Hare airport. One for cannabis may be in the offering.

UNIONS = “GOOD JOBS”

Unions turn jobs in newly-created industries into “good jobs.” The “union difference” makes a significant difference — not just in pay and working conditions, but in industry professionalism, a voice in the workplace and the future of the industry, and not the least of it: public esteem and respect for the occupation, profession, and industry.

Since cannabis is still federally illegal, the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t “count” the industry. But New Frontier Data does. They estimate the legal cannabis market currently employs more than 340,000 people and is expected to grow to nearly 750,000 by 2025.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized both medical and adult-use cannabis. Another two dozen allow for medical only. Seven states have some form of cannabis legalization on the ballot this November. Federal prohibition also means that every state is its own market, with no uniform rules, regulations or standards. Combine all those markets, and you have a $6 billion dollar industry, with jobs that run the gamut: retail, wholesale, scientific, supply chain, logistics, transportation, agriculture . . . and more.

FROM MEAT CUTTERS TO BUD TRIMMERS

Enter the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. They have been organizing cannabis workers across the country since 2011. More than 10,000 — many employed in dispensaries — in 14 states carry a UFCW membership card.

The union traces its history to more than 100 years ago when Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle exposed the misery and filth inside America’s meatpacking plants. The UFCW is an amalgamation of merged unions and guilds that represented butchers, meat cutters and packing house workers; poultry workers; retail clerks; health care and related professions; boot and shoe workers; barbers and cosmetologists; as well as department store workers. Besides cannabis, UFCW concentrates it’s organizing efforts on the grocery, retail, packaging and processing, chemical, and distillery industries.

Besides dispensaries, UFCW members in the legal cannabis industry work in growing and cultivating facilities, manufacturing and processing operations, as well as laboratories, coffee shops, bakeries, patient identification centers and hydroponics stores.

For its members in the cannabis space, the union has negotiated higher-than-average pay rates for the industry; comprehensive, affordable health care benefits; guaranteed annual pay raises; generous paid time off; and employer-funded retirement plans. And if it is important to the member, it is important to the union: While negotiating a contract for medical dispensary workers in Vallejo, CA, the union asked for a seven-minute grace period before marking the employee tardy. The dispensary is near a heavily trafficked road, making the morning commute particularly angst-inducing and problem-ridden. Management agreed to it.

In addition, union representation provides cannabis workers with a real voice — not only in their workplace but in the future of the industry. People stay longer in “good jobs.” They turn them into good careers. They grow, advance, and get promoted. They evolve with the industry. They have a stake in their future.

An evolving industry means challenge and change. For cannabis workers, the UFCW helps them get ahead of it. A tuition-free college program and on-going industry-specific education and training opportunities are other benefits that better the individual and better the industry.

And something else: Social equity is one of the most compelling promises of cannabis legalization. The idea is to get entrepreneurs of color — those who built the industry in prohibition times and were incarcerated as a result — ownership opportunities in the licit market. But for a variety of reasons, an eligible social equity applicant may not want an ownership role — a good job in the industry would suit them just fine. A unionized job makes working in the industry even better for them; Black and Hispanic workers receive an even greater earnings boost from their membership than do white workers. Moreover, collective bargaining can help close wage gaps for both these groups.

And that is important to note. Because the benefits of a union need to be available to all workers, at all levels, in every aspect of the cannabis industry, Not every cannabis job is represented by the UFCW. Nor is every cannabis job in the private sector, or “touches the plant. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, for example, represent cannabis workers in transportation, of course, but also in extraction, packaging, delivery, and other occupations in California and across the country. Public servants working to ensure that cannabis licenses are issued, regulations are being followed and imposed fines are being paid might be members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), while workers in the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control are represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Unions like the United Domestic Workers (UDW) are active in the fight for legalization, not because their members work in the industry, but rather, because their members work with individuals and patients who rely on cannabis as medicine.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR EMPLOYERS?

To be sure, labor peace agreements have played, and continue to play a critical role in the UFCW’s organizing success in California. But getting to that point hasn’t always been easy. There is a palpable distrust of unions by most cannabis business owners. They often forget about the LPA requirement, or when it kicks in. They express confusion about who they should call and what they should say. In fairness, calling a union and saying “Hey! Come on over!” runs completely counter to every business instinct they have.

But they should do it. Not just because they are legally obligated to. They should make the call because it is in their enlightened self-interest to do so.

Unionization dispels all the myths that prohibitionists put out. Unionization flags to consumers that the business is a real business — and not a shady operator growing sub-par pot in their garage.

Rarely — like never — does a business owner brag or promote that his employees are unionized. He assumes that everybody will assume that they did so because he’s a tyrant and abusive taskmaster, with an unsafe workplace and questionable management practices. But in the unionized cannabis industry, it happens all the time. Unionization means professionalism. It means cannabis is a legitimate business. Unionization dispels all the myths that prohibitionists put out. Unionization flags to consumers that the business is a real business — and not a shady operator growing sub-par pot in their garage.

The union can also be a partner in advocating for marijuana legalization. In Washington, DC, and in state capitals around the country, the UFCW is a political powerhouse. Their legislative staff is an expert in political action and moving an issue forward. Legalization helps to grow their membership. Our issue is their issue.

Now, imagine what it would be like if every state that currently has a legal adult use or medical program had the LPA requirement.

CANNABIS: IT’S GOOD FOR UNIONS

As much as unions are good for cannabis workers and the cannabis industry, cannabis can be good for unions, too.

Today, despite record-high public favorability — 64% of Americans approve of labor unions — their density is decreasing rapidly. In 1983, unions represented about one out of every five workers. Now, it’s only one in ten.

Organizing cannabis workers isn’t going to move those numbers significantly. But they could make a dent. Just as unionization professionalizes cannabis, cannabis could be a great public relations tool for unions, by introducing the labor movement to young adult customers and reintroducing it to older ones (the fastest growing cannabis consumer group).

Dispensaries should promote that they are a union shop through door signage and collateral throughout the business. They should promote the union label on their products (even flower) and encourage customers to look for it wherever and whenever they shop. And in a sign of “lit solidarity,” they could offer discounts to members of other unions.

WIN-WIN AND WIN

Cannabis workers and the cannabis industry certainly benefit from unionization in so many important ways. And the labor movement benefits as it embraces this emerging industry. As the negotiating term goes, it’s “win-win.”

But the big winner is us. Patients and adult-use consumers benefit the most. We get better products and are serviced by the most educated, competent cannabis professionals. That draws more business, generating more tax revenue for our community. Higher wages within the industry allows cannabis workers to buy more goods and services within the community, and decrease reliance on community social services. Honest hard-working people become our neighbors, strengthening our community bonds and enhancing civic life in our community.

Every day should be Labor Day.

Carl Fillichio is a vice president at Weedmaps. Previously he was appointed by presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to serve in senior executive positions at the U.S. Department of Labor. Early in his career he led communications on a successful UFCW effort to include hair care professionals in OSHA’s hazard communication standard.

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