Cannabis Workers Seek Union Protections, A Living Wage

As California and other markets prepare for an influx of jobs from the new cannabis economy, big labor is eyeing up an opportunity to protect workers - and strengthen its numbers. Investors and industry insiders are gearing up to cash in on what experts say could be an $18 billion industry, and unions want to make sure that employee rights are front and center as corporations come in and begin to conquer the landscape. Thousands of front-line workers will have a chance to collectively bargain for their rights alongside The United Farm Workers, Teamsters and United Food and Commercial Workers.

However, infighting among the three unions could potentially be a problem. According to The Associated Press, The United Farm Workers, founded by the late Cesar Chavez, sees cannabis as a perfect fit with the group’s central mission. Cultivation is an agricultural process, says the union whose leadership sees an opportunity for branding by putting the UFW logo on cannabis products.

Teamsters and the UFCW may disagree with that assessment. Recently the UFCW, who includes in their ranks grocery store employees, meat packers, and retail workers, made official their desire to organize workers in the cannabis industry. UFW national vice president Armando Elenes announced that his union wants to speak with cannabis workers, to which UFCW spokesman Jeff Ferro replied, “We would hope they respect our jurisdiction.”

One Sacramento California shop is already seeing the benefits of union representation. The Hugs Alternative Care dispensary is represented by the UFCW, an idea first suggested by company CEO David Spradlin in 2011. Unlike their peers in non-union shops, Hugs' workers have scheduled wage increases and health benefits, according to a report by KQED News.

“My hope has always been that the cannabis industry doesn’t turn into 7-Eleven,” Hugs CEO Spradlin told KQED. “I want the cannabis industry to turn into something that people want to get into and have a career in, something that a person right out of high school can go into and get a good job.”

California is especially ripe territory for organizing, according to the Associated Press. Prohibition repeal could bring in upwards of 100,000 employees across a variety of sectors, from harvesting to extraction, to delivery. While other states with legal cannabis have already accepted unions, California’s labor-friendly laws give union leaders high hopes that they can begin to turn the tide that has seen participation in organized labor decrease over the past 50 years.

More importantly, according to labor leaders, the introduction of unions into the cannabis economy is a necessity for workers. Abuse and poor working conditions are more prevalent than realized say union officials, and now that big corporations are moving into the industry there is a fear that they will attempt to push down wages to keep profits up.

“We’ve found in this industry that many workers were paid in cash or product or not paid at all, that many of their rights were violated, and that some might not know that they even have rights,” said James Araby, executive director of the UFCW Western States Council in an interview with KQED News. “They can be working 12-hour days and not be getting paid overtime.”

Araby went on to say that unions have an opportunity to jump into the cannabis industry on the ground floor. It is a rare chance to help people and change the unions declining fortunes. Teamsters organizer Kristin Heidelbach told the Associated Press that she hopes efforts are not stymied by infighting amongst union leaders.

As for the workers, at least one employee of Hugs Alternative Care dispensary is happy to be represented by organized labor. Angelica Sanchez told KQED News that the union rescued her job.

“I was fired, filed a grievance with the union, and got in the same room with the guy who owned the dispensary and got my job back,” Sanchez told reporters.

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