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States with legal pot consider how to protect cannabis workers

By Leigh Giangreco, Stateline.org
Published: April 3, 2023, 6:02am

Most cannabis dispensaries are cash-only businesses, constantly at risk of being robbed. Indoor growing facilities use harsh lighting, and plants get sprayed with pesticides.

Those conditions can create daily hazards for cannabis workers, which is why labor organizers are trying to unionize them as legalization spreads and the marijuana workforce grows.

“Cannabis consumers might assume that cannabis companies are progressive and treat their workers with respect,” Jim Hammons, organization director for United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7, wrote in an email to Stateline. UFCW Local 7 represents 23,000 members, including cannabis workers, in Colorado and Wyoming.

“But the reality is that many are abusive employers, including the small companies, and act just like big corporations when it comes to their employees.”

UFCW, which represents grocery, retail, meatpacking and health care workers, has led the unionization charge. The union says it represents tens of thousands of workers in the burgeoning marijuana industry, including “budtenders,” processors, delivery people and cultivators.

The union first organized cannabis workers in Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. Colorado and Washington were the first two states to legalize cannabis for recreational use and in the years since, many other states have followed. Today, 37 states plus the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana use, and 21 states plus D.C. allow recreational use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonprofit that educates lawmakers and their aides.

“It all depends on what the state is, but I could safely say that we’re leaving no state alone,” said Ademola Oyefeso, vice president of UFCW International, told Stateline. “Whether it’s a red state or a blue state, we’ve been organizing.”

Cyndi Kazmirzak, a former budtender — akin to a retail position — at Windy City Cannabis, a dispensary in Posen, Illinois, said such efforts are sorely needed. Kazmirzak said customers often harassed her and her female co-workers, and that during her second week on the job, someone threw a cement slab through the store’s window. Last November, Windy City workers voted unanimously in favor of union representation. Requests for comment from Windy City were not returned.

“As workers, we were very confused as to why we didn’t feel protected by our place of work or why we were just getting excuses,” she said. “I would leave work crying because I didn’t feel safe or because my team didn’t feel safe.”

Some large cannabis companies have allegedly sought to block unionization efforts.

Massachusetts-based Curaleaf, for example, which operates 142 dispensaries and 26 cultivation sites in 21 states, has been the subject of numerous complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board, including for retaliation and bad faith bargaining. Curaleaf did not respond to a Stateline request for comment.

Adam Abrahms, a labor management attorney based in Los Angeles, said many cannabis companies are struggling to comply with regulations and pay taxes, and that union-minded workers should be wary of pushing them over the edge.

“When you put in additional administrative costs and burdens associated with dealing with a union organizing campaign, that may not be within [workers’] ultimate long-term best interests,” Abrahms said.

In some Democratic-dominated states, lawmakers have tried to promote unionization when setting up legal cannabis marketplaces. “Labor peace agreements,” designed to promote friendlier relations between workers and management, have figured prominently in those discussions.

The nuances of labor peace agreements depend on negotiations between employers and unions. In general, employers agree not to interfere with workers and labor organizations if they decide to unionize. In exchange, workers promise not to interrupt business with strikes or boycotts.

Some states, including California and New York, require cannabis businesses to enter into such agreements in order to receive a license. Illinois doesn’t require the agreements, but it encourages them: Dispensaries that pledge to enter into a labor peace agreement with employees receive points toward their adult use license application.

Jae Chun, a New York attorney who represents unions, recognizes that by giving up the right to strike, unions are relinquishing a potent tool in protecting worker rights. However, he noted that unions have leverage because cannabis companies seeking a license must find a partner to sign the agreement.

Gabriel Winant, a University of Chicago historian who specializes in labor, concurred such agreements are useful, “given the incredibly toothless state of labor law.” Still, he noted that they tend to have “very weak penalties for employer misbehavior.”

“So often employers calculate that it’s worth it to break the law, even knowing that they are going to be caught doing it because the penalties are insignificant,” Winant said.

In Maryland, where voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana in November, state lawmakers are considering what the cannabis marketplace will look like, including labor rights.

Earlier this month, the Maryland House approved an amendment that would require state regulators to adopt standards “to protect the rights of the growers and employees concerning grievances, labor disputes, wages, rates of pay, hours, or other terms or conditions of employment.” However, the amendment says the standards must prohibit unions from picketing, striking or boycotting.

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That language doesn’t satisfy Kayla Mock, political and legislative director at UFCW Local 400, which has members in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Mock said she’d prefer a state law like the ones in California and New York.

“Unfortunately, what it did was it kicked everything to the regulatory board for them to set up the framework,” Mock said. “They had a real chance to really ensure a lot of good jobs for a lot of Marylanders in this industry and instead, they handed that power to the board.”

The political environment in Maryland could be friendly toward a labor peace agreement provision: Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Wes Moore expressed support for the agreements in a new airport concessions contract. And in another industry, operators of video lottery terminals must enter into a labor peace agreement to receive a state license.

Still, Mock noted some lawmakers have expressed trepidation that the agreements could hold back the budding legal pot business.

“One thing that we heard that was rather concerning is that there is such a focus on access to capital and being able to get smaller businesses and social equity businesses up and running, that they didn’t want anything to hinder that,” Mock said. “There’s always this misconception that unions are going to get in the way, that unions are going to harm businesses. That to me is just not true.”

Other states are grappling with similar issues.

In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz and Democrats in the state legislature are pushing for recreational legalization. Earlier this month, lawmakers defeated an attempt to strip a provision for labor peace agreements from the Senate bill.

And across the border in Wisconsin, Democratic state Sen. Melissa Agard has introduced marijuana legalization bills in the past five legislative sessions. Prospects for passage this year are slim: Democratic Gov. Tony Evers included legalization for the second time in his budget request, but Republicans stripped the recreational marijuana provision from the budget last session and have signaled they will do it again, Agard said.

Agard’s current bill includes a provision that would require cannabis businesses with more than 20 employees to enter into labor peace agreements, an element she argues is crucial given Wisconsin’s position as a battleground state for labor.

“It is vitally important that we ensure that there are protections for the people who are on the front lines,” Agard said. “Agriculture can be dangerous for people to be working in, so we want to make sure that when people go to work, that they’re able to know that they’re going to be able to go home to their families.”