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Weed Workers of the World Unite

As the cannabis industry grows, the labor that sustains it continues to organize...
By Sensi Staff
Photo Credits - TEAMSTERS
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Workers at three RISE cannabis dispensaries in the Chicago suburbs of Joliet and Niles, Illinois, made history in April this year when they went on strike the day before 4/20, the industry’s high holy day. The work stoppage marked “the first time three cannabis dispensaries under the same company umbrella have gone on strike at the same time,” according to Teamsters Local 777. Workers here had voted overwhelmingly to join Local 777 in 2022.

The RISE dispensaries are subsidiaries of Green Thumb Industries (GTI), one of the world’s largest cannabis companies, with annual revenue topping $1 billion. The workers wanted a slice of that and demanded better wages, retirement contributions, and, not least of all, that the company bargain with them in good faith. (GTI did not respond to emails for comment.)

Nearly two weeks into the strike, GTI dangled a 50 percent wage increase for workers who crossed the picket line. That offer triggered the union to demand that the wage increases be made permanent and for all workers, not just the strikebreakers.

“This is just the beginning,” Jim Glimco, Local 777 president, said in a statement. “These brave men and women just undertook the longest strike in the history of the cannabis industry because they’re not afraid of taking a stand. We’re showing the whole industry that if you don’t play by the rules, we will pull your card.”

Across the nation

The 4/20 holiday also saw union action in Phoenix, where budtenders, cultivation workers, union organizers, and elected officials gathered in midtown to call for better working conditions. Some Arizona dispensaries, including national brands Zen Leaf and Curaleaf, have formed unions and are now beginning contract negotiations.

It is mystifying why some Big Cannabis firms would be dismissive of their workers, because anyone who has walked into a dispensary or visited a legal grow operation will see all kinds of people budtenders, trimmers, growers— committed to their craft.

“They really care about the work they do, they really care about cannabis,” says Teamsters spokesperson Matt McQuaid. “And because of that, they want to stay in this industry as long as possible. They want this to be a job they can start at age 21 and can retire in their 60s. That’s what people want out of this craft, and that’s the union’s goal and behind our efforts to organize.” The opportunity for work continues to grow as more legal cannabis markets become available. Currently 21 states plus the District of Columbia allow recreational sales of marijuana. An additional dozen states as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands have also passed medical marijuana laws.

Cannabis workers and unions first came together in 2010, when the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union partnered with workers in California. The UFCW was the first major union to support the cannabis industry actively, and it became a driving force for labor organizing in the field. The union also represents Canadian workers in retail stores, grow operations, bakeries, and dispensaries across Ontario. Since legalization first began in the United States (in 1996 for medical marijuana in California and in 2014 for recreational weed in Colorado), there’s been the concern that capitalism will do to the industry what it always does: big players will overwhelm small operators. More than 25 years in, it appears to be headed in that direction.

The rise of capitalism

Today there are close to 500,000 cannabis workers in the country. Marijuana is still technically illegal at the federal level, but workers in the legal states still have the right to organize, although their ability to do so is dictated by the states where they work. Nevada, for example, is a right-to-work state, so making membership in a union (or payment of union dues) a condition of employment is prohibited.

Labor peace agreement (LPA) laws have assisted union organizers somewhat. These laws vary by state, but in general, they require cannabis companies to stay clear of union organizing if they wish to do business in that state. In turn, the unions agree not to interrupt the means of production with strikes or boycotts. California and New York require businesses to enter into an LPA with labor to receive licensing. Illinois doesn’t quite require them, though they are encouraged. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Oregon are all considering their own LPA laws. (Oklahoma is among the 28 right to work states, which means it is relatively difficult to organize a union here. The Sooner State scores a lowly 45th among all states on Oxfam America’s “Best and Worst States to Work in America 2022,”

which considers wages, worker protections, and the right to organize in its rankings.) In some cases, when employers stifle attempts to organize, the workers receive little help from the federal watchdog, the National Labor Review Board (NLRB). In 2021, Pennsylvania cannabis grower AgriKind fired two workers for attempting to unionize, but the NLRB allowed it because the workers—who harvested and trimmed the cultivated product–were considered agriculture workers. (Only 14 states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin—allow collective bargaining for agriculture workers.)

UFCW also represents workers at a RISE dispensary in Henderson, Nevada but unlike the RISE dispensaries in suburban Chicago, management has not yet recognized the new union. On the contrary, the owners appear to do everything they can to quash attempts to organize. In 2022, about 60 cannabis workers overwhelmingly voted to form their union, and in November, they hooked up with UFCW Local 711, which said at the time that “the workers, who are employed as budtenders and inventory specialists, joined our union family because they were concerned about workplace safety issues.” But the employers have, so far, turned a deaf ear to the concerns.

“Upper management was telling store management to basically tell us that we can’t talk about the union, which is illegal,” says a budtender involved in the organizing who asked to remain anonymous. “They were telling us that if we get a union, it’s going to cost us hundreds of dollars in dues, and typical scare tactics like ‘the union doesn’t really care about you.’ “Prior to being acquired by GTI we were more of a mom-and-pop kind of shop,” the budtender continues. “Once we got acquired by GTI we saw the changes—no raises, no reviews, and I would say the safety went kind of down as well. And we were seeing Starbucks and Amazon forming unions, so we thought, why can’t we do it too?”

Moving ahead

Where does this leave cannabis workers? For now, it’s a slow, steady march toward better pay and benefits. In September 2023, the RISE dispensary workers in Chicagoland finally ratified their first collective bargaining agreement with GTI. The workers won an 18 percent wage increase, guaranteed tips and discounts, improved safety standards, and protection against unjust termination. Their two-week strike in April paid off, literally.

Meanwhile, Teamsters Local 777 also negotiated agreements with Zen Leaf dispensaries in Chicago and Schaumburg, Illinois. Verano, Zen Leaf’s parent company, is the third multi-state operator with which Local 777 has successfully bargained. In August 2023, the workers overwhelmingly voted to ratify their new collective bargaining agreement.

“This contract is monumental not just for our dispensaries, but for the entire industry,” enthused Lombard dispensary worker Lailane Dela Cruz. “It just goes to show that we really do have a voice loud enough to help create proper work conditions. I see this contract as just the beginning. Others will see this as a stepping stone in helping to create a new standard throughout the cannabis business.”

“They really care about the work they do, they really care about cannabis. And because of that, they want to stay in this industry as long as possible. They want this to be a job they can start at age 21 and can retire in their 60s.” —Matt McQuaid, Teamsters spokesperson