UFCW Emerges as Voice in Marijuana Industry

The United Food and Commercial Workers union has been organizing employees in the U.S. cannabis and hemp industries since 2008. Its Cannabis Workers Division now represents several thousand workers in six states and Washington, D.C. It negotiates on behalf of workers with respect to wages, benefits and conditions of employment.

On the political front, the UFCW has mobilized its membership for petition drives, lobbied for legalization and been an agent of change in the way that employment in legal marijuana is regarded by the National Labor Relations Board. Still, some in the business community contend that the industry is not yet ready to embrace unionization.


Representation of Workers

Outside of the marijuana and hemp sectors, the UFCW has organized 1.3 million workers, primarily in the retail, meatpacking, food processing and poultry industries. It advocates for the usual menu of wage increases, employer health care contributions, paid sick leave and vacation benefits, as it did at Bhang Chocolate, where workers ratified a contract last summer.

The status of workers in the legal industry, unionized or not, stands in stark contrast to the situation of “trimmigrants” who flock to Humboldt County and other illegal grow sites every fall, sleeping in the woods and dumpster diving for food between jobs, or the plight of undocumented workers who risk jail and deportation, like the defendants in the Schweder case.


Legalization Advocacy

The UFCW also plays a role in legalization advocacy, most recently in Ohio, where three local chapters recently announced their support for ResponsibleOhio. The petition drive must gather 305,591 signatures in 44 Ohio counties by the July deadline in order for the initiative to appear on the 2015 ballot.

The UFCW assisted in the petition drive in Colorado that ultimately led to the passage of Amendment 64 in 2012.  It backed Measure 91 in Oregon and lobbied for passage of the Compassionate Care Act in New York, where, not coincidentally, all dispensaries must be union shops.

Further, because of the UFCW’s actions on behalf of workers at a Maine dispensary in 2013, it has not become clear that the NLRB will treat workers in the legal marijuana industry as “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act, with federally protected employment rights.

In October 2013, a memorandum issued by the NLRB’s Office of General Counsel/Division of Advice found that it was appropriate for the board to exercise jurisdiction over labor disputes involving marijuana workers notwithstanding the fact the enterprises in which they work are illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act. The opinion also noted that this is similar to the position taken by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that exercises its jurisdiction over workers in the legal marijuana industry with respect to industrial safety issues.

The NLRB memo is not law, and like other administrative decisions affecting marijuana, it is not binding on future situations, but it is yet one more step in the direction of federal recognition of legalized marijuana. The UFCW’s efforts in bringing the dispute before the board made it happen.


Industry Resistance

Unionization is always controversial, and efforts by the UFCW are no exception. Workers at Compassionate Care in New Jersey have alleged that their employer has retaliated against pro-union workers by cutting back their hours and withholding pay, much as in the Maine dispensary case. The Cannabis Business Alliance has reportedly taken the position that the industry is not ready for unionization, with many small businesses struggling through the early years of operation.

Although the total number of legal marijuana workers represented by the UFCW is relatively small, the union appears to be playing an outsized role in the struggle for legalization, by improving conditions for workers, because of the political clout it can muster through an organized membership and legal action before federal agencies.

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