Cannabis Industry Seen as a Target for Union Expansion

Union organizers are looking to the cannabis industry as their next frontier for expansion as more and more states fully legalize.
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The cannabis industry is seeing a need for unions as more workers are hired and more states legalize. There is an increasing call from workers for better conditions, wages, and benefits, and unions are getting interested. 

Cannabis is continually bringing in more money for the U.S. economy. In 2020, the industry brought in a total of between $17.5B and $21.3B and provided between 240,000 and 321,000 full-time jobs. It is projected to reach $41B by 2026. As more states come on with legalization these figures could be even higher. 

And already, we are seeing unionization pop up. Modern Cannabis dispensary in Chicago unionized in 2021, and many other businesses in the city have done the same. The first cannabis union contract in Chicago was ratified in March 2022. 

“We’re trying to make these careers for the long term, not just one that is a turnover establishment,” says Alex Suarez, who works at Modern Cannabis. “I think the upswing in organization in this country right now is astonishing and we need to keep going over that energy.”

Tonya Townsend, who worked at a Green Thumb Industries cannabis facility in Rock Creek, Illinois when they pioneered unionizing in 2018 and 2019, saw some backlash to the movement. They failed to unionize, as the vote missed by a 26-30 margin. 

“There was a lot of union busting. They hired the top union avoidance firm in the country,” she says. “We took them on for about a year. It was a lot. It was mental, physical, verbal, daily abuse from these guys – they fought us tooth and nail the whole way. These workers are reaching out to us for help, so that’s unusual. It used to be we were seeking them out and now they’re coming to us. Our phones are ringing constantly with workers who want protection, higher wages, better benefits and accountability from these companies.” 

Unions have also been seeing an uptick in general. Retail has experienced gains in recent years, as 18 of 26 union elections that happened in 2021 are successful. Most of the cannabis unions are from The United Food and Commercial Workers and Teamsters groups, and they are leading even more union campaigns as more legal states and businesses come online. 

“There are plenty of people who are having to choose between feeding themselves and putting gas in their car to get to work, which is just kind of mind-boggling, considering it’s a multibillion-dollar industry,” says Maddi, who worked at Ayr Wellness in Massachusetts in 2018, before unionizing. She is now an organizer at UFCW Local 1445 in Massachusetts.

At this time, six states have statutes that require or encourage labor peace agreements for licensed medical or recreational cannabis businesses.

When recreational cannabis was legalized in New Jersey in February 2021, the law included agreements to protect workers’ union organizing efforts. The UFCW represents most of the cannabis workers.

“We were the first organization and labor union to step up to the plate and say this is a valid industry and these workers should not be treated like criminals,” says Hugh Giordano, organizing director of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 360 in New Jersey. “We hope to have 100% union density before the adult use conditional licenses are up and running.”

Beginning in 2021, 500 workers in the cannabis industry have formed unions with the Teamsters.

“When more states legalize recreational cannabis, we can’t let them simply make more minimum-wage jobs available,” says Teamsters general president Sean O’Brien. “We’re demanding careers, backed and safeguarded by Teamster contracts.”

As of today, the industry is literally growing as we speak, and with an uptick in union activity along with this growth means we will see more unions popping up in the future. 

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