Just months after New Jersey officially launched legal cannabis sales, labor unions are making real progress representing workers. Some of the largest cannabis companies in the state are already unionized, and further negotiations are underway.
New Jersey voters approved an adult-use legalization ballot initiative in November 2020 (by the largest margin in history). And after many months of often-fierce debate among lawmakers and the public, the state finally opened dispensaries on April 21, 2022. To date, there are 16 adult-use dispensaries, with four more expected to open soon. Besides dispensaries, the adult-use market comprises growers, manufacturers, testers and distributors—and unions are working to represent their workers, too.
“The company now pays towards their health care, and it’s guaranteed each year they pay more towards their health care.”
As reported by NJ.com, two multi-state cannabis companies in New Jersey, Verano and AYR Wellness, have already entered collective bargaining and signed contracts with their workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 360 union. Five other companies—the Botanist, Ascend Wellness, GTI, Columbia Care and Justice Grown—are currently negotiating to create contracts for their workers.
Of the remaining two companies, Curaleaf has signed a “labor peace agreement.” A labor peace agreement does not mean that workers joined a union. Instead, it’s an agreement from an employer promising not to interfere in labor organizing—as Amazon infamously did in a 2021 union drive in Bessemer, Alabama. The final company, TerrAscend, has yet to take such a step.
New Jersey state law doesn’t require cannabis employers to sign these agreements, but gives them incentives to do so—in the form of “points” that weigh in their favor when applying for a business license.
If you’ve been following cannabis-industry labor organizing in recent years, you’ve heard of UFCW. It’s organized workers from California to Illinois to Missouri. Besides UFCW, other unions like the Teamsters have also represented cannabis workers.
“TerrAscend is trying to avoid unionization, is our belief,” Hugh Giordano, the director of organizing for UFCW Local 360, the New Jersey chapter, told Filter. “They know we’re here, it’s not a secret … they’re one of the companies that tries to sign with a shell union.” He described a “shell union” as an organization an employer may sign a labor contract with while retaining some control over it.
What’s fascinating about this union movement is that cannabis in an unlikely bright light in a bleak national climate.
Asked what results UFCW Local 360 got from its contracts with Verano and AYR Wellness, Giordano said, “People got 9 percent-plus each year, people got big raises that kept up with inflation … The company now pays towards their health care, and it’s guaranteed each year they pay more towards their health care.” He also cited, “Vacation time, the basics, getting it in writing.”
What’s fascinating about this union movement is that cannabis in an unlikely bright light in a bleak national climate. In roughly the past 40 years, union membership has shrunk from 20 percent to under 11 percent of US workers. Meanwhile, under (supposedly union-friendly) President Biden’s leadership, Democrats in Washington, DC have failed to advance the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, the biggest labor legislation proposed since the Great Depression. The bill would make the idea behind labor peace agreements part of federal law.
But in the retail sector, unions won more elections (workforces voting to unionize), in 2021 than they did in any other year over the past two decades. And that’s thanks in large part to the cannabis industry. According to Bloomberg Law, cannabis unions account “for almost two-thirds (62%) of the retail industry’s unionization gains” between 2019-2021. It means the retail sector is now unionizing faster than any other sector was pre-pandemic, with UFCW at the forefront of these gains.
Leo Bridgewater, director of veterans outreach for Minorities for Medical Marijuana, explained to Filter that part of UFCW’s success has come from its willingness to engage early in the politics of cannabis. UFCW supported legalization in New Jersey, and has been active in lobbying state and local officials.
Bridgewater shared an incident in 2021 when his home city, the capital Trenton, was considering banning cannabis dispensaries. The City Council held a hearing. “Hugh Giordano went in there on behalf of the union and he laid that whole City Council out,” he related. “Not only did they not vote to [ban] businesses, but instead they ended up voting to have up to 10 cannabis businesses in the city of Trenton.”
At the state level, he added, “You can pull up the archives of any Senate or House committee bill that had anything to do with cannabis, and you can listen to the oral testimonies that were given, and I guarantee you’ll hear Hugh talking there.”
Photograph by greenserenityca via Pixabay