Toward a More Perfect Pot Union

An update of recent union activity and victories, with interviews featuring some of the leading union leaders representing cannabis workers from coast-to-coast.
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A GROWING INTEREST 

Following the November 2022 elections, 21 U.S. states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, many of them now entrenched with a full-blown cannabis commerce. This rapidly expanding industry is populated with thousands of productive and ambitious workers, many of whom actively seek to organize or have already created union partnerships in their workplace. 

Anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 cannabis industry employees are estimated to be unionized across America. 

UFCW UNITING WITH THE CANNABIS INDUSTRY

Some California cannabis employees are part of UFCW—United Food and Commercial Workers—the largest cannabis workers union in the country, representing over 10,000 employees nationwide. 

UFCW Local 5—which presently represents over 500 weed workers across the famed “Bay Area” of Northern California—is branching out beyond representing dispensary workers, as in June 2021, when UFCW brokered a historic first-ever agreement to unionize workers at both a California-based cannabis manufacturer, CannaCraft Manufacturing, and at a cannabis lab, Sonoma Lab Works. 

We were fortunate to speak in-depth with Jim Araby, Director of Strategic Campaigns for UFCW 5. When asked about what both the individual weed worker and the collective cannabis industry gain from unionization, Araby elaborated:

“The worker benefits are very clear, such as the difference between union and non-union wages in the companies we’ve organized in the Bay Area. DIspensary workers and delivery drivers are making $3-to-$4 more per hour than their non-union equivalents.

“Also union workers are not subjected to ‘at-will’ hiring-and-firing, instead, they have to go through an actual process for ‘just cause’ so if they get fired for some reason, there’s a procedure in place, whereas non-union workers just get fired immediately under the ‘at-will’ law.

“The other big thing is; with the way the cannabis industry is now, in terms of there being a lot of large mergers and acquisitions happening, I think workers are protected in such spaces if they organize. When the High Times (retail sector), Have a Heart and Harvest merger occurred a couple years ago (2020), we were able to protect workers and keep their jobs. 

“In terms of labor-management partnerships, we can lobby with legislators in order to create a more streamlined regulatory process so that businesses can expand and thrive, and workers can get a piece of that. And we’re focused on labor management partnerships and fighting companies that don’t recognize labor’s right to organize.”

Araby discussed the significance of cannabis unionization: “Because there’s going to be tens of thousands of people who work in the industry, and if workers don’t have rights, if they don’t have a voice, it’s going to end up the same way that every non-union industry is, where big corporations are going to control the wages and benefits of workers in this industry.

“But with the unions having a foothold as this industry grows, it at least gives workers and the communities a much more sustainable industry both in terms of what the community can expect, and ultimately, what workers can expect.

“We organized CannaCraft—a cannabis manufacturer based in Santa Rosa, CA—last year and that was pretty significant because, at the time, that company was going to unilaterally issue 20 to 30 percent pay-cuts for everybody and we were able to stop that. We were also able to use a smoother approach and bargain in good faith with the company to maintain most jobs at the plant as well as being on the pathway to create Cal OSHA—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—standards.” 

TEAMSTERS TEAMING UP WITH WEED WORKERS

Workers at Tikun Olam, a cannabis cultivation facility based in the California city of Adelanto, gave themselves an early Christmas gift on December 22, 2021 when they voted unanimously to ratify a labor agreement with Teamsters Local 1932. This act gave Tikun the distinction of being the first unionized cannabis facility in the Inland Empire, the massive metropolitan region adjacent to coastal Southern California. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was approved after Tikun workers voted in the majority to unionize. Beyond the contract, the company and Teamsters 1932 agreed to partner to provide training opportunities through apprenticeships with Tikun and the industry as a whole. 

Regarding this development, High Times was able to reach out to not only Abraham Gallegos, Business Agent Organizer for Teamsters Local 1932, but also Kenneth P. Ocean, Cultivation Technician at Tikun Olam, who graciously provided the workers perspective for this article. 

Mr. Ocean explained the process that led to his company joining Teamsters: “I was with the company for about six months before we voted to unionize about a year ago. It won unanimously; one hundred percent of us wanted to go this way. Being unionized gives us job security to not getting fired instantly, as well as giving us an opportunity to have a career in this business.

“The management here was having struggles and miscommunicating as far as procedures, so we felt a union could help us a lot more in every direction, including obtaining safety equipment that we needed to have on hand to do our job properly. We also get benefits from the union. Plus, the products we produce are ten times better now that we’re with the union.”

Abe Gallegos of Teamsters confirmed this: 

“Tikun Olam went for months without generating revenue. It had huge turnover with constant firings and crop failures. But since unionization this team has been producing great cannabis here in Adelanto. It’s been a complete 180 degree turnaround at that cultivation facility.

“Fortunately, here in California we have a Labor Peace Agreement (LPA) law, which means any company with ten or more employees has to sign an LPA to get their business licensing in California, which prevents them from engaging in union-busting.”  

In the legal city of Chicago, in March 2022, Windy City weed workers at not one but two cannabis retail store locations—in the Logan Square and River North neighborhoods—both voted unanimously to enter into a CBA with Teamsters Local 777. This was particularly significant because it was the first two Teamster contracts in the cannabis industry in the state of Illinois. 

Concerning this unionization, High Times was fortunate to extensively interview Jim Glimco, President of Teamsters 777, and he shared: “We negotiated a fantastic agreement at Modern Cannabis (MoCa) that covers two locations. What’s exciting about this industry is that we have momentum on our side; cannabis workers throughout Illinois are hearing about what’s happening and asking how they can sign up. The level of enthusiasm I’ve seen from workers in this industry is really exciting.”

Glimco discussed the importance of unions:

“For workers, the benefits are obvious; a union gives them better wages, better benefits, greater job security, a safer workplace, a voice on the job and so much more. For employers, there are also a number of benefits; a CBA implements a very clear set of guidelines into a workplace, which creates a certain level of operational stability for management. Union shops have lower turnover, so those employers are able to expend less resources on recruiting talent. 

“For cannabis specifically, given the ugly and tragic history of its criminalization, I think it’s important to consumers that employers demonstrate a commitment to social justice. When employers allow the process of unionization to play out fairly and bargain in good faith, it demonstrates that they’re serious about this, and their customers appreciate it.”

In June 2022, drivers and fleet maintenance workers at the Los Angeles-based cannabis distribution company Nabis Cannabis voted in the majority to enter into a CBA with Teamsters Local 630. Similar to the CBA at Tikun Olam, this particular labor agreement carries extra weight because it is a sign that unionization is moving beyond merely representing retail companies.

Matt McQuaid, Communications Project Manager with the Teamsters’ Dept. of Strategic Initiatives, told us: “Teamsters represent around 500 members working in cannabis nationwide in legal states like Illinois, California and Massachusetts.”

Further, McQuaid confirmed that it was “exciting” that the Teamsters were representing Nabis, a distribution company, adding: “That was cool because unfortunately a lot of agricultural workers don’t have collective bargaining rights in some parts of the country. But in California, they do.”

THINK TANK, UNION DANK

In September 2021, Washington D.C.-based nonprofit think tank the Economic Policy Institute issued a report entitled “Ensuring the high road in cannabis” that argued for strong unionization within the rapidly expanding legal-use industry. 

The report posits a “low road” scenario, in which employees in the cannabis industry endure the same inequities that non-union workers face in similarly aligned industries like agriculture. These detrimental practices and policies plague workers with low wages, minimal benefits, such as access to adequate health insurance. As well as the aforementioned ‘at will’ restrictions that threaten a worker with unemployment at a moment’s notice, often unfairly.  

By way of contrast, the “high road” paradigm utilizes unionization to ensure that the workers are protected from arbitrary firings, and earn a fair wage.  The report suggests cannabis workers could earn anywhere from over $2,800 to nearly $8,700 more per year working under a union contract.

UFCW’s Jim Araby weighed in on the EPI report: “Obviously I agree with their findings because fundamentally unions provide certain things to workers that they don’t have when they’re not in a union. Number one, it provides a pathway to better wages and benefits. Number two, it provides a fair process to be in place for any sort of discipline and as it relates to working conditions. And third, it provides a career pathway so that workers can advance throughout the industry, gain knowledge and skills and get paid for it as they grow, such as through an apprenticeship program.” 

UNION AVOIDANCE  

Certain law firms offer union avoidance services that actually assist companies in preventing workers from unionizing utilizing various methods including using pressure and fear tactics on workers considering unionization.  While this sub-industry may be one largely clandestine among the general public it wields great influence nonetheless in the various industries infected by their undermining of worker gains and workplace rights. 

Araby is all too aware: “Union avoidance firms are a growing presence in the cannabis industry; the big union-busting law firms like Morgan Lewis and Littler Mendelson, as well as others, see [union avoidance] as a growth industry for them. 

“We know that some cannabis companies have these law firms on retainer (fees paid in advance to law firms to utilize their services when needed).  These union-busting firms as we call them will even create fake unions in order to avoid the labor peace agreement requirements. So we know this is around, and the best way to deal with that is to make sure we engage workers and we get some enforcement on the regulatory side from the state, as well as have the federal government go after law firms that knowingly break labor laws.”

Glimco agreed union avoidance firms pose a threat to unionization in the industry: “Unfortunately, their scare tactics and lies can have an effect on people. In cannabis, though, what I have seen is that there is so much solidarity and enthusiasm from these workers. For that reason, union-busting in cannabis hasn’t been as effective as it might be at some other businesses.”

Glimco suggested how workers may oppose union avoidance firm intrusion: “The best way to combat these firms is to have a united, educated group of workers, and a strong organizing committee prepared for an anti-union campaign ahead of time. The more workers know that the anti-union propaganda is coming, the less likely it is to be effective. 

“There’s also a number of union avoidance consultants who used to be employed by a union, but then got fired for wrong-doing or incompetence. When workers find that out, they tend to doubt the credibility of the union busters.”

“UNION BUSTING IS DISGUSTING” 

In April 2022 UFCW 7 held a protest that saw union members, lead by organizer Jimena Peterson, demonstrate outside of the Denver cultivation facilities of the cannabis company Green Dragon, a weed franchise based in Florida as well as Colorado. 

The protest took issue with the union-busting tactics of Green Dragon co-owner and head cultivator Ryan Milligan after Milligan and the company fired a trio of growhouse workers for supporting efforts to unionize the workforce. 

And it’s far from mere material gains that would-be unionizers want to see changed; Green Dragon staff reported a facility full of mold and insects. The company has ignored employees’ requests for adequate ventilation. 

Araby was understandably critical: “Union busting is disgusting as it goes, and as the [Green Dragon] case proves, the company was at fault, so they had to rerun that election and the workers won their union in June 2022 and they now have a contract there.

“When employers spend resources on preventing workers from organizing and having rights at work, they’re basically spending resources against the democratic process. We at UFCW think that money should be better spent on allowing the workers to decide if they want a union or not.” 

Teamsters Glimco added: “Union busting is very prevalent. Most of the employers we organized had hired outside union busters and engaged in all sorts of dirty tricks once we filed for an election. They have fired people to scare them out of organizing, they lie to their staff. There have been many unfair labor practice charges filed against companies for bad behavior, and we’ve won almost all of them.”

UNIONS CAN ALWAYS DO MORE 

Although unions are highly advantageous to workers and companies alike, they are not perfect nor immune from criticism. Complaints include excessive dues that don’t justify the benefits as well as unions functioning as little more than another division of the corporation, intended to keep potentially more excessive worker demands under control.  

Glimco addressed such concerns: “Workers don’t pay dues until after they have ratified their first contract. Take a look at any collective bargaining agreement that was negotiated by Teamsters Local 777, in cannabis or any other industry. If you do the math, you’ll see that the wages and benefits our members receive is exponentially more than the cost of dues. Dues are a tiny fraction of the economic benefits you derive from your union membership.

“This union’s direction is guided by the rank-and-file. Shop stewards, contract ratifications, the leadership at the national level, my position as President of Local 777 as well as that of the executive board; these are all decided by direct vote of our members. Furthermore, our union is structurally a bottom-up organization. Local affiliates are autonomous and have most of the power within the Teamsters.”

As referenced by Glimco, a “rank-and-file committee” refers to a center of workplace democracy created by the actual workers of a company as opposed to a traditional union hierarchy. 

UFCW’s Jim Araby fully supports the rank-and-file system: “The core value of any union is worker democracy, so the more workers want to take ownership of the union, the better. We 110 percent support that. This is important because fundamentally, you don’t win a strong contract if workers aren’t involved. If the union believes workers are nothing more than dues-paying memes and they don’t actually deserve rights in the union, then shame on the union for doing that. UFCW fundamentally believes in workplace democracy, which means workers organizing and engaging themselves in the organizing effort.

“In every single cannabis company I’ve organized there has been a rank-and-file worker committee at the bargaining table, with me bargaining that contract.” 

When asked what workers should do regarding their complaints or issues with the union, Araby strongly suggested: “When workers feel that way, they should move up the chain to get to the union leaders so that they can understand why workers are feeling that way. The union is only as strong as the worker’s participation in it. You only get out of it what you put into it. 

“But I do think if workers feel the union is not responsive to their issues, they should show up to the union hall and demand a response from the union, because they are the union, and they invest in this organization and they deserve everything they expect from it.

“We have to keep fiercely advocating for worker’s rights in the workplace, fighting for union recognition, and bargaining for strong contracts. At the local state and federal level we have to fiercely advocate for the decriminalization of cannabis as well as the legalization of cannabis, and assert the workers’ voice to be an essential part of these state and local laws.”

The Teamsters’ Glimco reiterated his reverence for rank-and-file: “Rank-and-file committees are the backbone of our entire organization, from the shop floor all the way to international level, so we are certainly supportive of them. The workers on these committees are the driving force behind winning elections and securing collective bargaining agreements. They are the ones who make the decisions about what the priorities are when it comes to collective bargaining, what issues need to be addressed in the workplace, and what actions need to be taken during an organizing or contract campaign. 

“We even have rank-and-file members on the negotiating committees for our national contracts, some of which cover tens of thousands of members. The union is not a third party where workers hire a representative to advocate on their behalf while they sit back and take a passive role. Rank-and-file Teamster members organize and bargain on behalf of themselves, and the local union is here to facilitate that process.” 

CANNABIS UNIONS ARE THE FUTURE 

Araby was ambivalent when asked about the future of cannabis unionization: “It’s yet to be seen if the industry itself believes in the union model; I would say some companies we work with value such partnerships and others who are sitting on the sidelines or even aggressively fighting us.”

Yet he still offered optimism: “If unions don’t give up when it gets hard, workers are going to get more and more organized. We have to struggle and fight because as it becomes legal across the country, you’re going to see more and more larger companies getting involved that are not necessarily friendly to unions, and we’re already seeing this. So we have to harness the strength of the existing workers we represent and have to continue to fight for workers’ space in the center of all these legalization efforts. 

“The challenge is: how do we get skilled and trained workers into that field so the companies can retain their workers?  So we’re trying to figure something out with local community colleges to see if there are any federal or state grants we can pull down to do workforce training and development training so internal candidates can grow in that job. The future of the cannabis industry, and union workers within it, is positive, but I can’t tell you it’s going to be one hundred percent going our way. But I know as long as I’m in the union, we’re fighting for this and the union is fighting for this, and we’re moving in a positive direction.”

The Teamsters’ Matt McQuaid opined: “I definitely see unionization increasing. I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm among people in this industry for unions and you’re only going to see it grow.

“It’s really important that in these companies that are making so much money, that cannabis workers feel like this can be a career. It’s important that they can stay in this industry for their entire lives, if they want to. And when you have a union, you have wage increases and benefits and all sorts of other things that make (a lifelong career) a possibility for workers. If somebody wants to work in this industry for 23 years, they should be able to do that and the union makes that possible.” 

His fellow Teamsters brother Jim Glimco was equally infused with optimism: “I think the track record of organized labor in the cannabis industry shows that we’re doing the right things to ensure that this is a successful endeavor. Ten years ago, there were hardly any unionized cannabis workers, now there are thousands. Over the long-term, I’d like to see some of the larger players in the industry negotiate national master agreements with our union. 

“As far as benefiting the whole industry, right now, a lot of people want to stay in the cannabis business, but they can’t because they need better wages and benefits. A union fixes that problem. The more unions there are in cannabis, the more we will have the right people in the right positions.”

Glimco “absolutely” expects cannabis unionization to increase. He elaborated: “Of the 21 states where recreational cannabis is currently legal, only five of them are right-to-work (which enables companies to suppress unionization efforts).”

“However, even in the right-to-work states, the Teamsters Union is strong. It was just legalized in Maryland and Missouri, two states where we have a strong labor movement. Recreational dispensaries just started opening in New York, the state with the greatest concentration of union members in the entire country. 

“Many of these states and municipalities are very smartly requiring labor peace agreements from employers as a condition of securing licenses. This means that employers have to agree that they won’t engage in union busting if the workers seek union representation. All of this portends well for cannabis unionization.”

Tikun Olam grow tech Kenneth Ocean was asked about what advice he would give to workers at a cannabis company with less than ideal conditions and management who were seeking to unionize: “I’d tell them to try to reach out to someone with your local Teamsters and find out the information you need to unionize. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. We got involved when our union steward—and cannabis cultivation lead—Doug Herring contacted the Teamsters and filed the paperwork with them and got in touch with Abe Gallegos. Teamsters 1932 made the unionization process happen pretty quick.”

When asked the same question, Abe Gallegos built upon Ken Ocean’s advice: “This industry is filled with brand new cannabis workers, the younger generation, so it’s up to them to set their expectations for a career going forward. Talking to workers in this industry, you find a lot still don’t understand their basic rights. Some of these people work at companies that don’t pay them until the company makes sales, so you have workers who aren’t being paid timely, which isn’t legal. 

“Unionization is a process that everyone is entitled to, and they can reach out to whatever union they want to talk to, and then put together their own voices to unionize. Teamsters represent the workforce, but at the end of the day, the workers are the union. They’re the ones who will push the industry to the next level. The steps to unionize are easy; contact a local union rep, then from that point we empower the worker so they can take ownership of their workplace experience.”

We let Teamsters 777 President Jim Glimco have the last word as he looked to a potentially dazzling future: “I think as legalization spreads you’re going to see unionization expand into the entire cannabis supply chain. On the west coast, we’re already winning elections at distribution companies and growers, and I think that’s an exciting indicator of what’s on the horizon. There’s no reason we can’t live in a world where one day every hand that touches the plant, from harvest to retail, belongs to a union member.”

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