The Labor Day After

The Pundits Missed it! Cannabis was This Years’ Labor Day Story

by Carl Fillichio, Vice President at Weedmaps

Tuesday morning quarterbacking Labor Day 2021 media coverage:

The New York Times ran a lengthy and riveting opinion piece (“Let’s Honor True Spirit of Labor Day With a Union Revival”) exploring how American history often ignored the labor movement’s bloody struggle for human dignity. . . . while the New York Post’s editorial board explained “why most Americans no longer honor unions on Labor Day.” CNET revealed “the curious truth about Labor Day’s origins” . . . while National Public Radio just explained “why we celebrate it.” USA Today posted the stores and restaurants that were open yesterday. And on Fox News, Callista and Newt Gingrich shared what COVID taught us about American workers. All-in-all, a pretty normal Labor Day as far as news goes.

Scratch that. “There’s nothing normal about Labor Day 2021,” warned US News & World Reports.

Oddly absent from the Labor Day news coverage and editorializing was cannabis — and how the nascent legal cannabis industry has become a showcase of organized labor’s impact, evolution and success. Despite its impressive economic value — the legal market is projected to pull in $43 billion by 2025 — cannabis’ exclusion from the Labor Day Hit Parade wasn’t surprising. We saw it first a few months ago, when countless pundits declared the American trade movement dead after Amazon workers in Alabama voted overwhelmingly against forming a union. A blow for unions, certainly, but not enough of a reason to write their obituary. Especially as dozens of wins across the country were gained in the cannabis industry.

At the time of the Amazon election results, POLITICO noted that the cannabis industry is fertile ground for organizing efforts and highlighted workers at cannabis companies in New York and Massachusetts who recently voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Forty Sunnyside workers in four different New York dispensaries (Sunnyside is owned by Cresco Labs) and 11 Curaleaf workers in Massachusetts voted for union representation. The designation by Governors from both political parties of cannabis shops in legal states as “essential” businesses during the COVID pandemic pushed workers to unions, as they were concerned for their safety at work. The union representing dispensary workers in Los Angeles for example, made sure dispensaries required masks and restricted in-store interaction.

The timing is certainly ripe for unionization within the industry, as states roll out or expand medical and adult-use programs. Additionally, public support for both unions and cannabis legalization are at record levels. About 10,000 cannabis workers — mostly in retail dispensaries — are represented by the UFCW. Other unions are in it to win it, too, including the Teamsters, representing cannabis workers in agriculture, cultivation and retail. The United Domestic Workers don’t represent cannabis workers per se, but rather home care aides whose patients rely on safe access to cannabis medication.

According to Marijuana Business Daily, union organizing in the cannabis industry has picked up significantly in the past year, in response to issues brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Traditional “union states’’ like Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey have particularly active campaigns. Cannabis workers join a union for a variety of reasons: health and safety issues, a voice in the workplace, and wage/benefit concerns brought on by an “unbanked” industry. Labor peace agreements and sophisticated organizing efforts are also resulting in unionized cannabis workplaces.

It should come as no surprise that all of this is impacting who is part of the cannabis industry, and who has a say in the industry’s future. The labor movement is taking its seat at the table. In New Jersey for example, Gov. Phil Murphy appointed a UFCW official to the state’s new Cannabis Regulatory Commission, flagging the union’s role in the state’s soon-to-launch adult-use cannabis program.

Unionization is also providing the cannabis industry with a credibility boost and image enhancement. “There’s a lot of people who look down on it because there’s a lot of stigma to it and I think that unionizing cannabis workers will remove a lot of that stigma,” a dispensary worker told VICE earlier this year. Proud to call himself a union guy, he believes the union “solidifies us as a respectable part of the United States’ workforce and a respectable part of the United States economy.”

And ultimately, unions could be the secret ingredient that gets cannabis legalized at the federal level. The most pro-union president in American history isn’t enamored with the idea of legal cannabis. But he might be more open to it if the prodding came from his union friends.

Carl Fillichio is a Vice President at Weedmaps. He served in Senior Executive positions at the US Department of Labor in the Clinton and Obama administrations.

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