Booming US cannabis industry seen as fertile ground for union expansion

18 days ago

Booming US cannabis industry seen as fertile ground for union expansion

The Guardian

As cannabis legalization has spread throughout the US, workers in the now booming new industry are pushing to unionize, seeking to ensure the sector provides good-paying union jobs with benefits throughout its supply chain.

In 2020, the cannabis industry grossed between $17.5bn and $21.3bn in revenue, providing between 240,000 and 321,000 full-time jobs, and is expected to grow to $41bn by 2026. Nineteen states in the US have legalized adult recreational cannabis use, with Rhode Island most recently legalizing adult recreational use in May, and 38 states have legalized medicinal use.

Alex Suarez has worked at Modern Cannabis dispensary in Chicago, Illinois, since February 2021, a few months before she and her co-workers voted to unionize.

She said many dispensaries in Chicago have been unionizing, and that they have promoted their first union contract, which was ratified in March 2022, as an example for other workers who are unionizing to follow. The contract permits customers to tip workers and guarantees annual raises, seniority rights and 40 hours a week for full-time staff.

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

A report by the Economic Policy Institute in September 2021 noted federal legalization proposals have emphasized investing and prioritizing communities of color that have been hit the hardest by cannabis criminalization, but have failed to ensure that workers are supported in their ability to organize and work in jobs with quality wages, protections and benefits.

The report noted workers in cultivation, processing and retail could make thousands of dollars more on average annually with a union or high job quality standards.

Tonya Townsend worked at a Green Thumb Industries cannabis facility in Rock Creek, Illinois, during one of the first union organizing campaigns in the cannabis industry in the state, in 2018 and 2019. The union came up short in the union election in a 26-30 vote.

“There was a lot of union busting. They hired the top union avoidance firm in the country,” said Townsend. “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.”

Dan Hammel of Rise Rock Creek cannabis dispensary in Illinois celebrates joining Teamsters Local 777 in July 2022.
Dan Hammel of Rise Rock Creek cannabis dispensary in Illinois celebrates joining Teamsters Local 777. Photograph: International Brotherhood of Teamsters, courtesy of Teamsters

After the campaign, Townsend and her daughter joined the Teamsters as union organizers focused on the cannabis industry. She described the industry as the wild west, due to the rapid growth of corporations that aren’t regulated to ensure their workers are protected and paid fairly.

“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,” added Townsend.

Union organizing in the cannabis industry has driven a surge of union elections in retail, one of the few industries to experience unionization gains in recent years, winning 18 out of 26 union elections in 2021.

The United Food and Commercial Workers and the Teamsters both represent thousands of workers in the cannabis industry and are leading union organizing campaigns to keep up with the pace of the industry’s growth.

Maddi, who requested to use her first name only, worked at Ayr Wellness in Massachusetts in 2018, before her workplace unionized. She now works as an organizer in the cannabis industry with UFCW Local 1445 in Massachusetts.

“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,” she said.

Six states have statutes that require or encourage labor peace agreements for licensed medical or recreational cannabis businesses.

Hugh Giordano, organizing director of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 360 in New Jersey, said the fight for workers’ rights in the cannabis industry began through prohibition and through legalization efforts from medical marijuana to adult recreational use.

Adult recreational marijuana use was legalized in New Jersey in February 2021, and the law included agreements to protect workers’ union organizing efforts. The UFCW represents a majority of workers in the cannabis industry in the state.

“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,” said Giordano. “We hope to have 100% union density before the adult use conditional licenses are up and running.”

Since mid-2021, nearly 500 workers at more than a dozen facilities 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,” said the Teamsters general president, Sean O’Brien. “We’re demanding careers, backed and safeguarded by Teamster contracts.”

Amber Angerer, an organizer with Teamsters in California, became a union organizer after getting involved with a union campaign at the Haven cannabis dispensary she worked at in Long Beach, California.

“We’re organizing the entire industry, so that would be from seed to sale. Anything from cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and dispensaries,” said Angerer.

She said the hourly pay was barely above minimum wage, that workers experienced problems with inconsistent scheduling, favoritism and a lack of breaks.

“Management makes it very clear that you should be grateful to have this job, but in all reality, the industry is legalized and we shouldn’t have to feel grateful to work in it,” said Angerer. “They should be grateful that we want to work in this industry and that we’re making them billions.”