Can the California cannabis industry save the labor movement?

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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.”

At River City Phoenix, the work environment could not be more different, especially as the owners are sticklers for the rules and the union contract provides protection, she said.

“This is a chance to start something new,” she said of the industry. “It’s a pretty big deal to have the union behind your back.”

The union contract offers employees paid maternity and paternity leave, sick time, and opportunities for advancement that make it more of a career than a job, Santos said. “I don’t think anyone in the industry isn’t working hard. It’s the matter if people will respect the work you are putting into it.” She added that her 94-year-old grandmother was impressed that she is part of a union.

The UFCW, which represents 1.3 million workers in groceries, pharmacies, retailers and even chemical companies, has been leading the charge toward unionizing jobs in the legalized cannabis industry. There is at least one representative in each of 60 local union branches now organizing in the marijuana industry, Ferro said. It also has been active in Sacramento and pushed for passage of Prop. 64.

“We want legislation that really works from a worker perspective,” Ferro said. The union has used Platinum Advisors in its lobbying effort, a firm founded by Darius Anderson, managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, which publishes The Press Democrat.

A big challenge will be to organize workers in the cultivation of the crop, as the agricultural industry has historically been difficult for the union movement to make inroads in. That is significant locally given the prime cannabis growing region is the so-called Emerald Triangle of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties. Sonoma County also has a burgeoning industry.

One challenge is that the federal National Labor Relations Act, which provides collective bargaining rights for workers, does not apply to farmworkers. But in California, Gov. Jerry Brown in 1975 signed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act that gives the state’s farmworkers similar protections.

But even given that law, the state’s agriculture industry remains largely nonunion as employers have fought contract negotiations even when their workforce is recognized by a union. For example, in the North Coast only a smattering of wineries are unionized — such as Balletto Vineyards in Santa Rosa, Gallo of Sonoma and Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena.

“It’s a very small number of workers,” said William Gould, chairman of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

The United Farm Workers, which has a membership of slightly more than 8,000 members, intends to look for opportunities to organize workers in cannabis, said Armando Elenes, vice president for the union, which endorsed Prop. 64.

“It’s no different than a worker picking grapes for wine or a tobacco worker in North Carolina,” Elenes said.

But the UFW will not have the agricultural sector to itself, as the UCFW has received approval from the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, to organize workers in the cannabis fields, Ferro said.

The UFCW’s goal is “to be seed to sale,” Ferro said. The jobs could include cultivation, trimming, processing, delivery, retail and other activities. “We are used to highly regulated and dangerous processes,” he said of the work environments of UFCW members.

The UFCW has a tradition of taking on big targets. It launched an attempt to improve working conditions at the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, though last year it announced it would stop funding the campaign. Its effort in cannabis has not been without controversy; a top UFCW official in the sector, Dan Rush, was indicted last year by federal prosecutors for corruption, attempted extortion, and money laundering. Rush was fired by the union.

In the North Coast, there are labor efforts outside the union movement. For instance, the Humboldt Medical Cannabis Union is a grassroots group that has brought farmers, processors and employees together to bring standards to the industry, from providing background checks to prospective workers to having employers adhere to best practices.

“We are trying to weed out the bad apples that continuously put a bad face to our industry,” said Brian Shields, founder of the union.

The goal, Shields said, is to create a vibrant local workforce in an industry that is estimated to have as many as 25,000 workers annually around Humboldt County instead of relying on migrant workers, many of whom come from around the world each fall to make money and leave.

“Some of them are just trying to get a plane ticket to the next concert,” Shields said, adding that finding a reliable workforce is a constant need. His group has attempted to reach out to the local UFCW in the area, but it “has fallen on deaf ears,” Shields said.

While the debate continues in the Golden State, uncertainty lingers at the federal level, especially if the incoming Trump administration appoints more pro-business members to the National Labor Relations Board, the independent agency in charge of enforcing collective bargaining rights and unfair labor practices.

The agency’s general counsel wrote a memo in 2014 in a case in Maine that said the board should have oversight over employers in the medical marijuana industry who process the plant but don’t harvest it. But the matter never went to the full board and the issue is unresolved as a legal matter.

Even if the NLRB rules that medical marijuana falls under federal labor law, it will open up the thorny question of what job tasks will be specifically covered?

“There has been a great deal of litigation on what the boundary of agricultural work is and where that line is drawn,” said Gould, who served as chairman of the NLRB during the Clinton administration.

Meanwhile, California moves along as investors are ramping up business plans.

“The bottom line is there has never been a greater disparity between those who have significant resources and those who are making minimum wage,” said McGuire. “There are very few times where you can build an industry from the ground up... ensuring that workers are protected and are paid well.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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