Increasing Union Membership Presents New Opportunities, Challenges for Cannabis Industry

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By John Schroyer

A growing number of marijuana workers have unionized in recent years, adding a new dynamic to a rapidly growing – yet still relatively young – industry.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, one of the largest labor organizations in the country, has been leading the charge. The group even has a marijuana division along with a parallel website that’s dedicated to promoting unionized marijuana businesses.

The union now represents thousands of employees – from budtenders to growers – at dispensaries, infused products companies, ancillary firms and cultivation sites in numerous states including California, Colorado and Minnesota.

The rise of organized labor has presented some challenges for cannabis business owners, who must navigate uncharted waters and negotiate collective bargaining agreements that can boost costs, increase red tape, lead to legal issues and create new headaches.

But unions have also positioned themselves as a political partner to the growing industry, helping to pass legislation and regulations that benefit business owners and the movement as a whole. For some dispensaries, unionization helped improve employee morale and created a better relationship between owners and employees.

“It opens a lot of doors we were never able to open before,” said Debby Goldsberry of Magnolia Wellness in Oakland, a dispensary with 15 employees who are represented by the UFCW.

Political Advantages

Goldsberry said the UFCW’s experience in moderating employer-employee disputes is an asset, along with systems the union usually proposes to standardize employee reprimands and evaluations.

The biggest door unionization opens, however, involves politics.

The UFCW made inroads with cannabis workers and businesses in 2009 by helping to campaign for the Proposition 19 campaign in California to legalize recreational marijuana, according to an account by The New Republic.

Though Prop 19 ultimately failed at the ballot box in 2010, that campaign represented the beginning of a new relationship between labor and cannabis.

The union has often provided some political muscle to help get multiple pro-marijuana measures passed at the local level in more than one state. A local chapter in Fort Collins, Colorado, even helped to overturn a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries.

Other UFCW locals have helped get pro-cannabis legislation passed in Oakland and Berkeley, California, Goldsberry said.

Labor is also getting more involved in the creation of cannabis legislation, hoping to help craft worker-friendly regulations. The organization spent two years lobbying to ensure that New York’s MMJ law would require all marijuana companies to sign labor peace agreements – effectively making all MMJ businesses in the state unionized – and a similar clause is currently included in a regulatory system that could become law in California.

The same is true in other states.

Brian Caldwell, the owner of Triple C Collective in Tacoma, Washington State, said the Legislature might have completely wiped out medical marijuana this year if it hadn’t been for the UFCW’s lobbying efforts when lawmakers were determining how to roll MMJ into the regulatory system for recreational cannabis.

Though plenty of MMJ businesses will likely be shuttered as a result of the new legislation, Caldwell said the UFCW fought to keep at least a modicum of medical dispensaries alive. It also helped persuade lawmakers to allow many MMJ businesses to apply for local and state licenses.

Without the union’s political influence, Caldwell said, lawmakers may have simply erased the MMJ industry altogether and replaced it with the extant recreational marijuana system.

“We went up against big money that was trying to get rid of medical… and if we didn’t have the UFCW, medical would probably be completely gone in this state,” Caldwell said. “The UFCW has been a great partner.”

Partially as a result of those efforts, Caldwell agreed to partner with the UFCW and start working on a collective bargaining agreement for his dispensary, which employs 10 workers. He said the union didn’t ask for anything more that he didn’t already provide, from paid time off to health benefits to a process for reprimanding employees.

The move just formalized what the company already had in place, Caldwell said.

Jeff Jones – the executive director at the Patient ID Center, another Oakland-based marijuana business that entered into a collective bargaining agreement with the UFCW – also said the impact for his company was much more about gaining political allies than making concessions to employees.

He said the agreement had a neutral impact on his business, in large part because the UFCW didn’t ask for anything more than he was already giving his employees. But a side benefit, he added, is that the union offers an image of blue-collar legitimacy to many who wouldn’t have thought of marijuana as a reputable way to earn a living.

“This has helped to legitimize us into the mainstream,” Jones said.

Think Twice Before Signing

Still, unionization isn’t always a good thing for cannabis companies.

There are a number of downsides to entering into a binding agreement with an organization such as the UFCW, said industry consultant Todd Mitchem.

“When someone’s pro-union in the industry, my question is, ‘What’s the motivation?'” Mitchem said, adding that there’s not a lot of need in cannabis for the traditional watchdog role that unions have played in other industries, such as mining or automotive manufacturing.

“By and large, this industry wants to play by the rules,” Mitchem said.

One of the key drawbacks: Collective bargaining agreements can be difficult to get around down the road if a company needs flexibility, especially if it’s experiencing financial difficulties.

“You run into a massive divisiveness between the employer and the employee” many times once unions become part of the equation, Mitchem warned. “To overlay a union structure onto a fragile industry… is really short-sighted, and in my opinion, risky.”

The UFCW, in fact, has been involved in employee disputes at dispensaries in Maine and New Jersey.

Overall, Mitchem said, the marijuana industry pays its employees quite well, doesn’t put them at risk with dangerous working conditions, doesn’t take advantage of long hours and low pay, and generally doesn’t create a situation where unions would be needed.

The average wage is between $35,000 and $40,000, there are opportunities for advancement and employee benefits are fairly common with many cannabis companies, he said.

Mitchem agreed, however, that there may be appropriate times for a union to step in. Hypothetically, he suggested, if a cultivation company was requiring its employees to use dangerous pesticides and wasn’t following proper safety standards, that would be an excellent situation for a union to intervene.

“If they continue to do that as an industry, then you could make an argument that unions are necessary because working conditions are unsafe,” Mitchem said.

But a better approach, he suggested, would be for the industry as a whole to “raise the bar” when it comes to self-policing, employee treatment, and so on. More often than not, he said, problems that unions would address in the workplace can be dealt with by good leadership within the business itself.

The bottom line for cannabis companies should be to take a look at working conditions, perhaps the local political situation, and think about how a union could help.

“The question is, is it really something you need?” Mitchem said.

John Schroyer can be reached at