The Cannabis Industry is Unionizing

The industry is seeing more organizing after the pandemic brought high profits for corporations but layoffs and slashed benefits for employees.

Aug 24 2021, 1:00pm

Bay Area resident Zachary McDonnell Casciato was excited to tell his family of East Coast  Teamsters that he was finally a “union guy.”

Casciato, 33, has been working with cannabis since he was 12 years old in what is now considered the ‘black market’ marijuana industry. He’s since worked in California’s legal cannabis industry as a budtender and delivery person before settling at the Blüm San Leandro dispensary, where he is currently a cash clerk and receptionist during the pandemic. This is his first union job.

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“There's a lot of people who look down on marijuana because there's a lot of stigma to it and I think that unionizing cannabis workers will remove a lot of that stigma,” Casciato told Motherboard. 

He is just one of 10,000 cannabis workers represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. The union has been integral to unionizing and legalizing marijuana in the United States since it started organizing over a decade ago in southern California after medical marijuana was first legalized. 

“It solidifies us as a respectable part of the United States workforce and a respectable part of the United States economy,” Casciato said.

Organizing in the cannabis industry is steadily increasing after the pandemic brought on high profits for corporations but layoffs and slashed benefits for employees. Cannabis businesses in California, Colorado, Florida, New York and more have unionized over the last 12 months. 

This is partially due to the union organizers’ recruitment efforts. Four of the five cannabis workers who spoke to Motherboard reported that unionizing only began in their workplace after they were approached by UFCW organizers. Though thousands of workers are already unionized or in the process of organizing, the concept of cannabis unions is new enough that it doesn’t yet seem like an option.

However, this issue is very common across industries. A 2017 study from the ILR Review found that 48 percent of all nonunion workers said they would vote for a union if given the chance. The union coverage rate has also halved in recent decades, dropping from 27 percent in 1979 to 12 percent in 2020. 

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“Management definitely dispels talk about the union–that you may get punished for joining a union–or a lot of clubs don't even know that that option exists,” Aqeel Siddiq, a budtender at Blüm Oakland, which unionized this year, told Motherboard. 

Siddiq told Motherboard that he appreciates the extra “layer of protection” that the union provides. His union's newly ratified contract has given him a more regular work schedule among other things. The union even notified the employees that management was splitting their tips without their knowledge. 

Unionization in the industry is also supported by a policy known as a Labor Peace Agreement (LPA) that is being increasingly ratified within marijuana legislation. Generally, LPAs make it so that employers do not interfere with unionizing and, in return, workers will not strike or interfere with the company’s business. New York’s recent marijuana legislation included a Labor Peace Agreement. Under this legislation, businesses must already have an agreement with a union that is currently or already unionizing its workers in order to even be licensed.

“Because of the potentially higher rates of unionization in the industry, they have the opportunity to really set standards,” David Cooper of the Economic Policy Institute told Motherboard. Cooper recently had the opportunity to look over multiple union contracts provided by the UFCW and found that they set wage floors that are well above state minimum wages among other competitive benefits. 

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The New York legislation also sets a goal of providing 50 percent of business licenses to people disproportionately affected by the criminalization of marijuana. “I think it's all well and good to write legislation that provides the support for entrepreneurship for folks who are formerly incarcerated. But the reality is the vast majority of people who are going to work in a legal cannabis industry are not going to be business owners, they're going to be rank and file employees,” Cooper said. “We need to have structures and standards in place that make sure that those folks can make a decent living in the industry.” 

The cannabis industry profited quite a bit during the pandemic and will only continue to grow from here. Recreational marijuana is already legalized in 19 states with legislation pending in others. The U.S. saw a 46 percent increase in legal cannabis sales in 2020 from the year before. Cannabis stores in Massachusetts alone reported selling nearly $700 million in cannabis products, which is 75 percent more than what they made in 2019. But increasing profits did not translate to increased employee benefits or jobs. 

“The rapid changes taking place within the industry, particularly with the corporatization and the buying and selling of companies, has created an unpredictable future for workers,” Sam Marvin, director of organizing at UFCW Local 328, told Motherboard via email.  

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UFCW Local 328 recently organized Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Parker Terrell, a budtender at Greenleaf, is currently helping in negotiations with the owner’s attorney and the dispensary’s chief of staff.

“This, for a lot of us, was an opportunity to really kind of stand up for ourselves and really sort of set a boundary,” Terell said. “At the end of the day, my time and my worth means something, and I'm not going to go unacknowledged for the efforts and the lengths that we go to make that business run.”

Terrell told Motherboard that 2020 was a very profitable year for the medical marijuana dispensary. “We started to notice that like the rhetoric that they use in terms of talking about the dispensary kind of shifted,” they said. “This is medicinal, this is a pharmacy. And all of a sudden, we started hearing them make comparisons to us to a Tiffany's or the Ritz Carlton.”

Regardless of the increase in sales, a number of their colleagues were laid off and the employee discount and bonuses were eliminated. Greenleaf eventually reinstated the discount for nonunion workers. A number of the employees are medical marijuana patients themselves so they continued to purchase from the dispensary until a smaller discount got reinstated. They’re now negotiating for a larger discount and the union has helped file charges against Greenleaf for failing to extend the discount to all of its employees equally. They are seeking back pay for the money employees spent there as patients.

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UFCW has represented cannabis workers in multiple cases before the National Labor Relations Board. In November 2020, the union won its case against GrupoFlor Cannabis after the company laid off all of its union workers during the pandemic. It successfully got the workers’ jobs reinstated and won $60,000 in back pay for them. 

The union is also helping Molly Balbuena file a grievance against her employers at Cresco for hiring an external worker instead of promoting current staff members for a lead position. This directly violates the tentative agreement they had reached just months before. She notes that she has felt like she’s being retaliated against as her department’s union steward. “I shouldn't feel scared to bring that up, if I feel like I'm being wronged,” she said. “It's nice to know that I have people on my side.”

Balbuena says pandemic layoffs spurred her colleagues to start taking unionization more seriously, despite the union busting fliers posted around their workplace. She told Motherboard that the cultivation department could only organize as an agricultural union that doesn’t include retail Cresco employees, but workers in other departments and dispensaries have expressed interest.

Multiple workers who spoke to Motherboard said they felt excited to be in the early stages of the industry’s growth. They expressed that unionizing rather than leaving their workplaces felt like it was worth the work, especially because other cannabis businesses would likely have similar issues. 

“There's a lot of ageism, sexism, that still needs to be overcome,” Balbuena said. “It gives everybody a singular voice, and you have to be looked at at an unbiased level.” 

The industry’s nascency makes it a ripe opportunity for entrepreneurs and innovation, much like the tech industry. But labor in the legal cannabis industry is being regulated at a higher rate.

“The steps cannabis workers are taking together now by organizing will help determine how this industry looks years down the road,” Marvin said. “These foundational agreements will help pave the way forward for a stable and equitable future for cannabis workers.”

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