Increasing Union Membership Presents New Opportunities, Challenges for Cannabis Industry

marijuana union

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 [email protected]

9 comments on “Increasing Union Membership Presents New Opportunities, Challenges for Cannabis Industry
  1. Sherrie Heim on

    The only reason unions want into the weed industry, is to make ($$$) with the worker’s due’s. This industry does not need a f¢?king union. Union’s just want due’s to waist your hard earned ($$$$). Teacher’s unions take teacher’s hard earned ($$$$) and use it to pay themselves.
    Wow!!! I can’t believe people still think unions are for the good of the worker. Back in the day they were needed. Not now.

  2. Paula Givens on

    MMJ Employers are under no legal obligation to recognize any labor organization claiming to represent its employees. The Employer may require the Union to utilize the Representation Election Procedures established for such purposes by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB election allows the Employer time to “fight” the Union in ways that do not violate the law, including giving speeches, sending emails, flyers and similar informative methods. Employers may lawfully inform its employees that is is against the Union and that it would prefer to stay non-union. It is unlawful for employers to threaten, coerce or discriminate against employees because of their union activities.

  3. Seth Tyrssen on

    I’m with Sherrie Heim on this one. Unions, in theory were created to prevent robber-baron bosses from oppressing (and even murdering) workers. We don’t need unions because that situation does not exist. And the food union is “leading the charge?” Let me get this straight, the same thugs that ignore the torture of animals (watch the videos!)are now supposed to be our good buddies, standing up for OUR rights? No thanks — that’s help we don’t need. Further, the unions are, like it or not, controlled by either the Communists or the Mafia. There is NO DOUBT of this, and ample proof. I don’t much care for either, if you do, that’s your choice. Let the people involved in the production of our beloved Sacred Herb work together as a TEAM. If legislation has replaced MMJ with “recreational,” that means those who use the Sacred Herb as medicine can get it. DUH! Don’t fall for this B.S.– it’s just another ploy to steal your cash! — Seth Tyrssen, Praetor, Temple of Ankh’n’Abis/Church of the Sacred Herb.

  4. Catherine Berg on

    Lots misconception of Unions. Unions are a We and not just a me!! Unions bring unity, equitability, safety, benefits, wage increases (that don’t remain stagnant), recognition of work performance. The marijuana movement is not like working as a life guard at a swimming pool. The movement is to swim not sink. Kudos this is Union movement to stop it from becoming a Corporate America. Pesticide controls are being denied. If I was an consumer of edibles I sure would want some type of pesticide control. I don’t get it? I am PRO UNION and VP for my LOCAL. I will research more and pass me ON! I can be found at

  5. Seth Tyrssen on

    Unions were vital in bringing rights to auto workers, coal miners, and more, back in the 30’s. I’ve had a close-up and personal look at Detroit’s hospital union, the Teamsters, and the Retail Clerk’s Union — the first was taken over by Communists, the second by the mob, and the third by Communists again. All the RCU ever did was take people’s money (union dues) and stir up trouble where none existed, then get ’em all out on strike, in at least one case (Montgomery Wards, Southgate, MI.) with no strike pay. In the dead cold of a Michigan winter, no less. The marijuana movement is also not like working in a coal mine or a steel mill. In a country dominated by corporate greed, the Publix grocery store chain gets it right: there are no unions, because none are needed. Management and workers cooperate as a TEAM, accommodating each other as needed. The marijuana business should be organized in exactly that manner. And, you want me to believe that the same union that protects the workers who horribly torture animals in the food industry are the ones we should support? Bollocks, madam. Pure bollocks.

  6. Seth Tyrssen on

    Mine applies across-the-board, at all aspects of marijuana use and production. For more, see on Facebook: Temple of Ankh’n’Abis/Church of the Sacred Herb.

  7. Justin on

    Catherine Berg says it best. … Kudos this is Union [MMJ] movement to stop it from becoming a Corporate America.

    I’d would hate to see the green not rightfully trickle down the ladder. If union dues protects my best interest, I don’t see anything wrong with equitable compensation. The MMJ is poised to be a 10 Billion dollar industry in the very near future. Its growth and potential is limitless. If “We” leave “them”(corporation and politician) to there own devices MMJ will look far more like fast food industry i.e. Mc. Donald’s. You cannot forget how we arrived at this milestone the “We” mindset. Championing and campaigning.

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