Can the California cannabis industry save the labor movement?
One of the biggest impacts of Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana, will likely be felt by the estimated 300,000 to 350,000 workers in the California cannabis industry.
Whether they are farmworkers, trimmigrants who each year head to Humboldt County to process the crop, or retail clerks helping to legally sell various forms of the plant, there are workplace issues to be resolved.
Cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, listed as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. But the fact is many employees will now be able to come out of the shadows and may find a more worker-friendly environment evolving in this multi-billion-dollar industry, analysts said.
Both driving and benefiting from the legalization of pot is organized labor. The marijuana industry represents one of the biggest opportunities for unions in decades, analysts and organizers said, as their ranks have shriveled over decades under conservative policies and a concentrated effort by business groups, such as implementation of so-called right-to-work laws.
In 1983, union membership was at 20.1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, it was 11.1 percent.
“These are workers trying to do an honest day of work for an honest day of pay,” said Jeff Ferro, the director of Cannabis Workers Rising, an organizing effort by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. It has organized thousands of medical marijuana workers in eight states and the District of Columbia.
Most significantly, Prop. 64 and landmark legislation signed earlier this year by Gov. Jerry Brown - which provides a state framework for the medicinal marijuana industry that was approved by voters in 1996 - both included language that could help increase labor’s ranks for unions such as the UFCW.
The language essentially requires that any business with 20 or more employees in the California cannabis industry must remain neutral during a union organizing drive and not engage in efforts to thwart such an effort. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said the purpose of such language is to “pressure employers into granting organizing concessions that are highly prized by unions.”
These types of arrangements are occasionally provided by states and localities to workers in certain union-heavy industries such as hotels or building trades. In fact, the trend originated in San Francisco in the early 1980s.
“Labor unions will stand strong for workers’ rights,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who co-authored the state law on medicinal marijuana. “They bring workforce protection. Also, consumers can rest assured those employees are earning a living wage and good benefits and that the employer has to abide by state and federal workforce laws.”
While labor organizers face fierce resistance from businesses on many fronts - from corporate pay to a minimum wage of $15 an hour - they may find a willing ear in the cannabis industry as it looks to go mainstream and gain credibility in the business community and localities, said Raymond Hogler, professor of management at Colorado State University. Hogler is a union advocate.
“It’s an industry that has sprung out of nowhere,” Hogler said. “It (unions) will help give you a little stability and legitimacy.”
While unionization efforts in the North Coast have not fully ramped up yet, they are farther along in other parts of the state.
At River City Phoenix, a medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento that serves 525 patients a day, more than 70 employees have received benefits for the last couple of years under a UFCW contract, which provides health insurance and annual raises from a starting pay of $15 an hour. The union is also working to implement an apprentice program with the state for positions such as “budtenders,” the personnel who counsel patients on what type of cannabis strain and product would be best suited for their medical problem.
The union agreement has brought more stability to an industry known for high turnover, as its employees now are better trained and more knowledgeable than others, said Matthew Z’berg, community outreach coordinator for River City Phoenix, which is owned by a small partnership group.
“A lot of folks really think … it will be detrimental to their business. We have seen that it is a positive thing,” Z’berg said of being a union shop. “It’s not the big the elephant in the room that will kill your business.”
Gloria Santos has seen the difference. Santos, 26, is a lab technician for River City Phoenix. She had previously worked at a rival dispensary in Sacramento, where owners would attempt not to pay her overtime for working a 12-hour shift, or as a concession “they would offer you free weed.”