7/11/20 By DAN ULLOA
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union has been instrumental in securing legitimacy for the industry. They have fought the worst aspects of the industry to help cannabis workers.
The UCFW started in cannabis worker organizing in California in the early 2000s during the market’s medical days. It was more of a movement at the time with the industry consisting of many small business people focused on caring for patients.
One of their locals (chapters) in the Bay area first formed a partnership with the movement. They liked cannabis and understood it from a social justice perspective. Through working with the UFCW, cannabis activists were able to secure meetings with high-level politicians to lobby them effectively. The UFCW saw the potential of the industry to create good jobs and address social justice issues. Thus, eight years ago, they began organizing cannabis workers in California. The UFCW now represents about 10,000 workers in 15 states.
The UFCW’s relationship with the industry soured in Colorado after the Cole Memo was issued, even though businessmen leaned on the UFCW to pass legalization. Previously, the UFCW’s partnership had been with West Coast hippie types and people from the legacy market.
Corporate cannabis executives had backgrounds in real estate, law, or finance. These businessmen (and they were mostly men) were interested in profit more than anything else. The UFCW official noted most of them paid lip service to the benefit of unions and the virtues of the plant. There was a change in attitude from the Multi-State Operators (MSOs) Curaleaf, Acreage Holdings, iAnthus, and MedMen especially. A lot of these companies were designed to bring to maximize profit at the expense of workers and social justice. They were not interested in building a lasting company or brand. He called them “paper tigers.”
The initial pioneers of the cannabis industry are mostly gone the UFCW official said. They were driven out of business, left disgusted in how the industry developed or sold out.
Cannabis Worker Problems
In the early days, the UFCW saw cannabis workers were not getting paid, paid in cash or cannabis itself, and sexual harassment was prevalent. Many came from the legacy market and did not have experience in a legitimate workplace. They were at the mercy of employers who took advantage.
Cannabis workers face the same issue as workers in other industries, such as disrespect, lousy pay, and no health insurance. They face the problem experienced by Walmart workers who are dependent on state benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps to make ends meet. When companies say they are bringing in great tax revenue to a state, they do not mention their workers are a drain on tax revenue because they do not compensate them adequately.
Cannabis workers specializing in growing face health and safety issues that are unreported. They often do not receive protective equipment nor safety training. Workers are often in environments polluted by chemicals that lead to deadly lung diseases.
The UFCW partnered with the health and federal safety regulators to study conditions in the industry. One study revealed extraction facilities have the worst working condition where workers developed a deadly lung disease. There is also the issue of fire safety. Cannabis extraction using butane is dangerous. Workers in extraction are untrained and poorly compensated.
“There is potential for real disaster,” he said.
The application of noxious pesticides to cannabis affects patients and consumers too. Many off the pesticides are illegal. Many companies ignore safety regulations which are bad for patients and the long-term health of workers. Colorado, most of the companies were using chemical fertilizer Eagle 20 that is banned in the U.S. because it causes sterility in men.
The gray zone cannabis operates in is not conducive to improving conditions. It is difficult for MSOs to find quality health insurance. The plans for cannabis workers often only cover emergencies rather than checkups covered by a good policy.
“No doubt this industry is not what it needs to be for women and people of color,” he said.
Fights for Cannabis Workers
Despite facing significant issues, the UFCW has won victories for cannabis workers.
The UFCW official described a successful campaign at Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge, NJ that helped a couple that met there and married. In 2016, they were making $13 an hour and scaping by with public benefits. Now they make around $20 an hour with a retirement plan and health insurance. They bought a house because the UFCW fought to make their jobs sufficient to sustain a middle-class lifestyle.
In January 2020, the cannabis workers of Cresco Labs in Joliet, IL, won the largest National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election in the industry where they voted overwhelmingly for the union. The UFCW also won an election at the Sunnyside dispensary in Chicago. They won in an election Hannover, MA of a Curaleaf dispensary. Most recently, they won an election at the Mayflower Medicinals dispensary, a subsidiary of iAnthus.
One of the UFCW’s advantages in organizing cannabis workers is that the majority are politically progressive and receptive to the union’s message. Many supported Bernie Sanders’ progressive platform or fought for social justice themselves.
There have been, of course, defeats. Many companies engage in union-busting tactics. In a dispensary in Brookline, MA NETA (which is opening a dispensary in Phillipsburg, NJ) fired 53 people for forming a union. Because the Trump administration is against unions, the UFCW was wary of going to the NLRB to fight them. In New Jersey, there are strong protections within state law cannabis workers can turn to for protection. If they were to fire 53 workers for unionizing in Jersey, the MSO would lose their license.
A cannabis worker is often enthusiastic at working in the industry and accepts poor conditions. After six months, they become disillusioned and leave for a job like a waiter which pays more or get fired. Thus, there is a high turnover. In addition, many cannabis workers are scared of retaliation from the bosses and do not understand they can form a union.
Despite the industry’s issues, the UFCW works with the industry on legalization and the 280-E tax issue. PharmaCann, Vireo, and a couple of others were cited as MSOs more equitably minded. iAnthus was said to be improving, though they are going through a great deal of tumult.
However, they often work more with grassroots groups like NORML and patient advocacy groups. He believed the George Floyd protests have been an awakening that will affect the cannabis industry for the better.