Union organization in the marijuana industry has been booming over the past year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in new and emerging adult markets such as Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey.
According to union representatives and labor experts, several factors play a role:
- The pandemic increased workers’ fear and concern about health and safety in the workplace and opened the window for unions to organize.
- More and more states are stipulating “labor peace agreements” which forbid employers from interfering in the organization of work. Labor peace pacts tend to lead to unionized jobs over time.
- Unions are targeting the burgeoning cannabis industry more aggressively as membership falls in other sectors of the economy.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) is by far the most dominant union in the cannabis industry.
New Jersey governor Phil Murphy even appointed a UFCW official to the state’s new cannabis regulatory board, underscoring the union’s role in the upcoming adult marijuana program.
The UFCW launched a formal initiative called Cannabis Workers Rising in 2013 to organize workers in the marijuana and hemp industries that offer greater growth opportunities compared to established companies like grocery chains and retailers.
“The unions see cannabis as a great opportunity,” Boston labor lawyer Jonathan Keselenko recently told Marijuana Business Magazine.
“They did a kind of court press to organize the industry.”
Hugh Giordano, union rep / organizer of Local 152 for the UFCW in New Jersey, said it may sound cheesy, but he believes the cannabis industry offers a “historic opportunity for industry and work” to forge a partnership that delivers fair wages and benefits guaranteed helps with the recruitment and retention of highly qualified workers.
But company officials and legal experts like Keselenko also say there are potential downsides.
They say that unionized jobs are more expensive and reduce a company’s flexibility, such as the ability to relocate employees to other work tasks based on current needs.
They also warn companies to be careful when signing labor peace regulations and not to go beyond what is necessary to meet the requirements.
Some legal experts argue that provisions on industrial peace are altogether unnecessary as the same occupational health and safety is provided for by the federal labor law.
While many marijuana operators like Minneapolis-based Vireo Health and the recently Seattle-based Have a Heart have been open to unions, there is also evidence of conflict between companies and union organizers.
For example, the UFCW has partnered with Massachusetts-based Curaleaf, one of the largest marijuana companies in the country, in Arizona, Massachusetts and New York, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) records.
A mail-in union election is currently underway at Curaleaf’s Windy City Pharmacy in Chicago.
Curaleaf declined to comment on this story.
The Union’s presence was felt in the Northeast and Midwest
On its national website, the UFCW states that it represents “tens of thousands of cannabis workers” in several states.
These numbers could not be verified and the national UFCW did not respond to requests from the Marijuana Business Daily for certain data from the cannabis industry.
But activity has been brisk for the last year or so.
The graphic above – from press releases and media reports – is not an exhaustive list of all union activities that have taken place in the marijuana sector over the past year.
But it does offer a snapshot of the UFCW’s organizational efforts.
Union activity is more pronounced in states such as California, the Northeast, and parts of the Midwest, where labor is traditionally strong.
Edmund DeVeaux, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, said the UFCW was a member of the trade association.
“In terms of our relationship with the UFCW, we are on one side, according to DeVeaux,” in advocating a secure job that offers fair wages and benefits, economic parity, opportunities and training.
“It’s not that a non-union shop can’t do this, but that’s something they (UFCW) welcome,” he added.
“Why shouldn’t we support it?”
Pandemic-fueled union formation
The COVID-19 pandemic is one reason the UFCW has made progress over the past year.
“It woke up the workers side,” Giordano said of UFCW Local 152.
An employee at Curaleaf Pharmacy in Hanover, Massachusetts told the Marijuana Business Daily last spring that workers had previously considered union formation, but efforts were getting serious with the spread of COVID-19.
The employee said at the time that the schedules essentially stayed the same without taking into account the increased risks. The workers wanted more recognition and influence on company decisions.
Curaleaf requested indefinite postponement of a union election at the Hannoveraner Apotheke because of the pandemic, but the NLRB ordered a mail-in election following a ruling by the NLRB last May.
The results are still uncertain, particularly due to a dispute over the ballots of six Curaleaf workers temporarily transferred to Hanover when Massachusetts cut adult sales in April and May 2020.
A hearing officer from the NLRB agreed with the UFCW that these anti-union ballots should not be counted, according to a union official.
Curaleaf appealed to the regional NLRB director who ruled in favor of the UFCW. Curaleaf has now appealed to the NLRB in Washington DC.
The UFCW was not successful in all organizational activities.
In some cases, petitions for union elections have been withdrawn.
In Massachusetts, employees at a New England Treatment Access (NETA) pharmacy in Brookline voted 30-9 against the union. But the UFCW said the staff had been coerced and contacted the NLRB.
Labor peace can lead to union formation
Labor peace requirements are another factor in increasing marijuana union formation.
California passed a stricter labor peace regulation in 2019 requiring applicants with 20 or more employees to provide a notarized statement that they will enter into and comply with the terms of a labor peace agreement.
Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for UFCW Local 5 in Northern California, said compliance was inconsistent.
“I would say most major retailers and delivery companies do,” Araby wrote in an email to MJBizDaily. “Less in the areas of testing, manufacturing and cultivation.”
Labor peace regulations are likely too, as more and more northeastern states legalize adult marijuana.
New Jersey’s new adult marijuana law requires labor peace agreements, except in the case of micro-businesses.
The UFCW has urged other governors in the northeast to include labor peace pacts in adult cannabis bills.
“If you want to talk about social justice, you have to talk about workers,” said Giordano.
“We know New Jersey will be a powerhouse when it comes to cannabis. Why don’t we want the best and brightest, and the only way to attract the best and brightest is to have good wages and benefits. “
Giordano said many marijuana companies are open to union formation.
“But as in every industry, there are those who struggle with teeth and nails.”
Jeff Smith can be contacted at [email protected].
Omar Sacirbey contributed to this report.