Canadian cannabis unions make gains amid pay and safety concerns

Image of an employee protest outside an SQDC cannabis store

Société québécoise du cannabis store workers represented by public-sector union Syndicat canadien de la fonction publique demonstrate outside a location in Lachute, Quebec. (Photo courtesy of SCFP)

Canadian labor organizers say unionization and strikes among cannabis retail employees are being driven by worker concerns including low pay and health and safety issues.

The latest union activism is causing ripples within Canada’s marijuana industry: A cannabis retail strike by one union in Quebec has caused store closures, while another Quebec-based union recently ended its strike after negotiations.

Although no definitive data exists on exactly how many of Canada’s more than 3,000 cannabis stores use union labor, the vast majority of cannabis retailers are not union organized.

However, unions represent significant numbers of cannabis retail workers in several provinces, including:

  • Private-sector union United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents close to 500 employees at cannabis stores in British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario.
  • Two public-sector unions in Quebec representing approximately 450 employees of the province’s cannabis retail monopoly.
  • Private-sector union Unifor, which represents 1,200 Newfoundland grocery store workers, some of whom work in attached cannabis stores.

The situation in Canada comes as cannabis employees in the United States increasingly are joining unions along with their counterparts at mainstream businesses such as coffee giant Starbucks, tech behemoth Amazon and outdoor retailer REI.

But while the U.S. has been experiencing a definite uptick in unionization during the pandemic, the situation is different in Canada, said David Camfield, an associate professor of labor studies and sociology at the University of Manitoba.

“We haven’t seen the same level of workers taking things into their own hands in Canada as we have seen in the U.S.,” Camfield told MJBizDaily.

That said, Camfield has observed a shift in the overall retail sector.

“Purely anecdotally, I do get the sense that there are more retail workers in Canada unionizing in the last little while,” he said, adding that data is limited.

Pandemic pickup

Kevin Shimmin, an Ontario-based national representative for UFCW, said cannabis retail unionization sped up during the COVID-19 pandemic alongside overall retail unionization.

“I believe some of the working conditions in the cannabis sector are worse than any other type of retail store,” he told MJBizDaily.

Workers at two locations of Sessions Cannabis, a marijuana retail franchise in Ontario, are among those who’ve opted to join the UFCW.

Steven Fry, Sessions’ co-founder and CEO, said negotiations over a collective agreement have not yet launched.

But Fry expects the stores’ unionization “won’t have an impact on our overall prosperity as a business.”

“I think what will have a bigger impact on business is what’s happening in the broader marketplace,” Fry said, adding that the large number of retail stores, “creates less sales per store, as we all split the same pie.”

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Workers’ concerns

The UFCW’s Canadian cannabis retail membership of nearly 500 workers makes it the biggest cannabis retail union in the country, union organizer Shimmin believes.

UFCW represents workers at some locations of multi-store Canadian cannabis retail brands including Canopy’s Tokyo Smoke and High Tide’s Canna Cabana in Ontario, Trees Cannabis in British Columbia and The Joint Cannabis in Manitoba.

The union also represents significant numbers of U.S. cannabis workers: In April, a UFCW official in California estimated that unions have organized 30,000-40,000 cannabis workers across the United States.

Shimmin said the Canadian union’s cannabis campaigns all started after retail workers reached out to the union, rather than the union contacting them.

He said a common theme for unionizing cannabis retail workers is concern for health and safety, particularly when coupled with low pay.

Shimmin said employees have faced “verbal abuse, physical abuse, being threatened with a knife, being slapped in the face, being punched, having their life threatened, having customers wait for them outside the store late at night when they close the store.”

Some store operators are “unwilling to put enough staff in the store – especially at night, or in particularly risky neighborhoods,” he added.

Cannabis store workers faced with those conditions are being paid an average of 17 or 18 Canadian dollars ($13.25-$14) per hour, Shimmin said, adding that they report uncertain timelines for raises and salaries inconsistent with seniority.

Drive to unionize

Kathleen Quinn, co-founder of the cannabis workers action group United Weed Workers (UWW), got involved in organizing the Tokyo Smoke franchise where she worked in Hamilton, Ontario, to unionize with UFCW in 2021.

(Quinn said the UWW has worked with the UFCW to organize stores, but the groups aren’t formally affiliated.)

“You never think that you would start a union at your workplace. But sometimes it gets to the point where you have to,” Quinn said.

“We didn’t have basic things like fire extinguishers for a year and a half. We didn’t have chairs to sit on in our lunch room, and staff weren’t being paid overtime, weren’t being paid holiday pay.”

When cannabis stores first opened, Quinn said, “wages were pretty good.”

“There were benefits packages, or promises of benefits, and now that is very rare to find,” she continued.

“Wages have either stagnated or decreased. There’s high turnover in the industry (and managers) have utilized that as a way to pay people less.”

Quinn said other common worker concerns include a lack of health and safety precautions and security training, and “a lot of racism and sexism and human rights violations – especially toward women.”

Getting to a vote

The UFCW’s Shimmin said union campaigns that make it to a vote almost always result in unionization.

But for every successful cannabis retail union drive, five or six other campaigns fail to reach a vote — a ratio Shimmin described as “about average.”

Usually, he said, campaigns fail because the employer learns union cards are being signed.

“In the cannabis sector in particular, we’ve experienced employers who will say and do anything under the sun to try and convince people not to sign cards or to win a union vote,” he said.

Shimmin said the collective agreements that follow successful union drives have resulted in changes including minimum staffing levels, annual pay increases and health and safety committees.

Strikes in Quebec

The UFCW’s cannabis retail members have not carried out any strikes or labor actions to date, Shimmin said.

But strikes affecting cannabis retail have already occurred, like a 2020 strike by Newfoundland grocery workers that shuttered roughly 40% of the province’s regulated cannabis stores at the time.

In Quebec, workers are currently on strike at provincially owned cannabis retail monopoly Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC), causing occasional summer closures and schedule reductions at a number of stores.

The workers are represented by public sector union SCFP (Syndicat canadien de la fonction publique), the Quebec branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canada’s largest union.

SCFP Local 5454 president David Clement told MJBizDaily via email that “the union has been able to find solutions on all disputed points at the negotiating table except for salary, where there is a total deadlock.”

In comments translated from French, Clement said the union’s strike goals include “an end to precarity and indecent salaries.”

Other SQDC workers represented by a different union, CSN, also went on strike this year before reaching an agreement.

CSN’s SQDC union leader Maxime Nadeau said the negotiations resulted in better salaries, including a starting wage increase from about CA$17 to CA$19, and other changes — but he sees those as “just the beginning.”

Nadeau hopes future labor agreements will achieve wages equivalent to those at the SAQ, Quebec’s government alcohol monopoly.

Both SQDC unions told MJBizDaily they are working to unionize more stores, and both leaders expect all branches will ultimately be unionized.

Working with unions

Although the neighboring U.S. cannabis industry has seen an increasing number of labor peace agreements, the United Weed Workers’ Quinn said she hasn’t seen such agreements in Canadian cannabis retail yet.

For cannabis retail executives and owners who are concerned about their employees organizing, Quinn advises taking employee concerns seriously and not viewing them as the enemy.

“You have to look in the mirror, shut down your ego and think to yourself, ‘OK, my employees aren’t happy. How can I make this better?'”

Quinn argues that unions can benefit businesses by creating a clear contract with established rights for both management and employees.

“Instead of looking at a union as an adversary, I would look at them as an extension of your HR,” she said.

“I would look at them as an extension of your processes, of your operations.”

Sessions Cannabis CEO Fry said that although two Sessions franchises have joined the UFCW, workers at another store ultimately voted against joining the union.

“Once you create a union, there’s very limited ways by which you can remove a union,” he said. “So it’s a very serious decision for staff to go through.”

“As a leader or as a store owner, it’s important that you hear from your staff (to learn) what’s caused (this) or what’s brought this on, and how can you work together to fix that?” Fry continued.

“Because as soon the union’s in, that relation between employees and employer does change, and it removes some tools that might otherwise be available to help the staff continue to grow and prosper.”

For cannabis retail business owners and executives concerned about unionization, UFCW organizer Shimmin offered some simple advice.

“I think a very simple suggestion would be simply pay your existing employees well, make sure they’re safe and treated well before you think about expanding,” Shimmin suggested.

Such moves might help avoid future union votes, he said.

“No one that’s paid well and is being treated respectfully ever calls us.”

Solomon Israel can be reached at solomon.israel@mjbizdaily.com.