More Cannabis Workers Are Unionizing as Legalization Rolls Forward

    Cannabis industry workers are winning key battles to unionize and make labor provisions a part of legalization proposals. On January 14, 95 workers at cannabis company Cresco Labs in Joliet, Illinois joined the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881 (UFCW) union after a majority vote in favor.

    “The intent of the Illinois recreational legislation was clear; to have good, well-paying union jobs in the industry,” said UFCW. “With a union contract, cannabis jobs can be family- and community-supporting careers with good wages, pensions, healthcare coverage and dignity in the workplace.”

    The Cresco workers were the first to unionize in the state of Illinois since legal cannabis sales began there this year. Cresco is a vertically-integrated cannabis company currently operating in seven US states.

    The Cresco workers were supported in their campaign by US Congressmembers Robin Kelly (D-IL 2nd District) and Bill Foster (D-IL 11th District). They also saw a supportive January 13 tweet from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

    “Workers in the cannabis industry deserve respect and fair wages,” Sanders said. “I encourage Cresco Labs workers in Joliet to vote yes for the union … As president, I will lead the fight to double union membership in this country.”

    The vote applies only to one facility in Joliet. Cresco, currently the largest cannabis company in Illinois, has three cultivation and five retail facilities in the state. An additional 35 workers at the facility are not eligible to be represented by Local 881.

    The legalization bill that Illinois passed last year included provisions related to “labor peace” agreements. These agreements essentially state that employers will not interfere with unions’ efforts to organize or communicate with employees. The union, in turn, undertakes not to organize picket lines or work stoppages. State cannabis regulators will offer “credit” to companies that sign labor peace agreements when considering business license applications.

    But in other states with legal marijuana, lawmakers have gone further.

    In October 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) signed into law Assembly Bill 1291, requiring cannabis companies with 20 or more employees to sign a labor peace agreement within 60 days. In New York, medical marijuana companies are required to sign labor peace agreements, according to legislation passed in 2014.

    “Part of why the state governments, in my understanding, think labor peace agreements are crucial is in protecting its ‘proprietary interests’ – which in this case includes regulating, or keeping an eye on cannabis,” said Robert Chlala, a Graduate Researcher at the University of Southern California with six years of experience working on cannabis unions. “They want to make sure that an employee-employer tension doesn’t get in the way of them making sure the product stays monitored and consumers stay safe.

    “From my perspective, talking to workers, labor peace agreements allow them to have a conversation that could affect their work lives without manipulation or undue pressure from their bosses. This makes a big difference in an often small-scale business like cannabis, where there is often a really intimate relationship among employers and employees.”

    Chlala explained that unions have become important especially in the cannabis industry because of rampant practices of unpaid labor, sexual harassment, and lack of benefits. Unions like the Local 770 UFCW in Chlala’s hometown of Los Angeles, CA have connected cannabis workers to local activist movements for criminal record expungement and immigration rights.

    But in a much simpler capacity where employers themselves benefit, unions have hosted required OSHA worker trainings, offered apprenticeships, and helped businesses learn how to do payroll. Chlala said cannabis companies are often especially welcoming of unions.

    As more state legislatures and voters weigh marijuana legalization this year, labor leaders are working to center employees in the debates. In November, UFCW sent an open letter to six governers in the Northeast, urging them to make labor peace provisions key to a regional cannabis policy framework.

    “America’s cannabis industry has the power to create thousands of good jobs that support hardworking families and the communities they serve,” it stated. “But we can only achieve this with strong labor peace agreements that set high standards that reward responsible businesses, strengthen worker voices, and put consumer safety first.”

    UFCW’s victory in Illinois followed similar wins in 2019. In October, the first medical marijuana workers in Pennsylvania, employed by Vireo Health, joined UFCW Local 1776. And in December, the first cannabis workers in Massachusetts, employed by Sira Naturals, joined UFCW Local 1445.

    As more cannabis businesses open their doors around the country, more workers will weigh union membership to protect their rights and fight for better pay and benefits. Zach Koutsky, legislative director for Local 881 UFCW in Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune that his organization has already signed labor peace agreements with over half of the 700-plus applicants for the state’s next business licensing round.


    Image of a Local 881 UFCW protest in 2017, via Facebook.

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