The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union now represents more than 10,000 cannabis workers across the US, having started organizing in the industry more than a decade ago in southern California.
One such worker, Zachary Casciato, said unionizing helps to legitimize the marijuana industry in the face of ongoing hostility.
“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 said. “It solidifies us as a respectable part of the United States workforce and a respectable part of the United States economy.”
The last few years have seen a flurry of states legalize marijuana sales. Nineteen states now permit recreational cannabis purchases, and the lockdown measures introduced in response to the coronavirus outbreak served as a boost to the industry. Across the US, recreational cannabis sales increased by 46 percent in 2020 compared to the year before.
Many workers, however, did not see the benefits of this, with layoffs, slashed benefits and insecure contracts increasingly becoming the norm. This has triggered a new wave of unionizing in states that previously had little to no workplace representation in the cannabis industry, like Illinois, Florida and Massachusetts.
“We’re seeing a big momentum in cannabis workers locally and across the country,” said Sam Marvin, organizing director at UFCW Local 328, the union’s Massachusetts’ chapter. “Workers across the industry are coming together and securing an equitable future in a growing industry.”
The rise in cannabis industry unionizing is in contrast to broader workforce trends over recent decades. In 1979, 27 percent of workers were in a union whereas in 2020 this had dropped to 12 percent.
Still, though marijuana industry unionization may be increasing, many workers remain unaware that it’s an option while management often tries to discourage workplace organization.
“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,” said Aqeel Siddiq, a budtender at a newly-unionized dispensary in Oakland.
The increasing uptake of a policy called a Labor Peace Agreement (LPA) within legislation to legalize cannabis sales is another sign of union influence within the marijuana industry. Under an LPA, employees agree not to strike in exchange for the employer not to interfere with unionizing efforts. An LPA was included in New York’s recently passed marijuana legalization bill, which stipulates that a prospective cannabis business must already be aligned with a union before it will be considered for a license to operate.
While much attention is given to social equity provisions that promote minority ownership in cannabis reform legislation, David Cooper of the Economic Policy Institute believes safeguarding workers’ rights is an equally important goal.
“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.”
And with a review of the union contracts secured so far by the UFCW, which provide for wages well above the state minimum among other benefits, there’s more hope among many cannabis industry workers that unionizing will help ensure a stable and equitable future.