by Tammy Puyear
9 March 2021
For those of us with family roots in manufacturing or trades, it’s not unusual to have heard stories about labor unions in the family annals. Labor unions found their origins in the mid-19th century in response to the social and economic impact of the Industrial Revolution. In the United States, national labor unions began to form in blue-collar and agricultural industries as a way to protect workers from safer workplace conditions, lower than acceptable wages, and reasonable hours for employees.
Political pressure between the Democratic and Republican lawmakers at the time resulted in different iterations of labor unions, but workers continued to unite and organize, including the rapid increase in imports from Germany, Japan, and Asia in the 1970s. By the time the 80s arrived, companies were closing and moving factories to more southern states, typically less aggressive than those in the north, or left US shores altogether, to set up shop in low-wage countries.
As more industries became deregulated, like trucking, airlines, railroads, telecommunications, unions began to feel the pressure of their shrinking power. Former President Ronald Reagan, himself a former union president – broke a strike of Air Traffic Controllers in 1981, further suggesting that labor unions wouldn’t be sustainable. Today, labor unions exist in the service industry for workers in retail, call centers, and the traditional areas of agriculture and manufacturing.
Enter the cannabis industry – agriculture, manufacturing, and retail all components of the supply chain, yet federally illegal. Is there room for labor unions in an industry that although found in a growing number of states, is still not recognized by the federal government as legitimate? The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union certainly says so. Their membership is composed of people you interact with on a daily basis, including grocery store personnel, call-center representatives, food service workers, and processors, as well as labs. Today, UFCW is actively looking to help employees in the cannabis industry unionize and markets to workers with the following premise:
“The legal cannabis industry is a newly regulated market that can offer local communities jobs with strong wages and benefits that can’t be outsourced. The UFCW offers cannabis workers and business owners, along with patients and coalition allies, the opportunity to work together to accomplish shared goals. By crafting and supporting targeted legislative efforts, along with negotiating the best contracts for workers, we’ve been able to set high standards throughout the industry.”
Much like the battle over unions in their beginnings, unions wanting to represent cannabis employees aren’t without criticism. Federal legalization is certainly a factor in the back and forth between the cannabis business and unions like UFCW or the United Cannabis Workers (UWC), formed and composed primarily of independent workers, self-employed workers, businesses, and business owners working in the cannabis industries. This group created the industry’s first National Cannabis Workers Pension Fund, and offers similar benefits and resources found in other unions to anyone working in the cannabis industry.
In response to high-profile arguments about the relevancy and validity of labor unions for the cannabis industry are driving movements. Lawmakers and regulators across the United States increasingly are requiring marijuana firms to accept “labor peace agreements” that can lead to unionization. According to the US Chamber of Commerce defines these labor peace agreements as “an arrangement between a union and an employer under which one or both sides agree to waive certain rights under federal law with regard to union organizing and related activity. While these agreements can be negotiated voluntarily, some state and local governments have attempted to impose them on employers bypassing labor peace ordinances.”
Legislators in states like California and New York are passing bills that require cannabis businesses of a certain size, such as 20 or more employees, to include provisions for labor peace agreements in their operating requirements and sometimes applications for license. However, Michigan refused to do so on the basis of decades of automotive worker unions and their relationship with the Michigan auto manufacturers. In an interview with Cannabis Now, Republican state senator Aric Nesbitt stated: “These labor peace agreements are really a Mob-style shakedown of these new businesses that are growing. At least the Mob lets you get going first. They won’t even issue a license unless you sign one of these labor peace agreements.”
In a landmark case in Denver last year, a significant ruling that represented an advance in resolving the federal jurisdictional dilemma was made in a US appeals court that held that protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act apply to “all workers”—including those in the cannabis industry. Multi-state operators sit on both sides of this fence, while unionized workforces are argued as more expensive by some MSOs, others have seen the right for workers to organize as a way to show goodwill and flexibility for their workers. Here in Missouri, the UFCW has a strong roster of non-cannabis members, but as a right-to-work state, even if unions do penetrate Missouri’s Medical Marijuana workplaces, employees aren’t required to join as a condition of employment.
“The cannabis industry faces unique challenges given its relationship with the federal government,” said David Cook, president of UFCW Local 655. “However, those challenges shouldn’t stand in the way of cannabis workers exercising their legal right to decide whether or not they want to join a labor union. UFCW represents countless cannabis workers across the country and has secured better wages, benefits, and working conditions on behalf of those workers. We have already had preliminary conversations with individuals in the industry and we are excited about its growth in Missouri. We look forward to offering cannabis workers here the same opportunity at a better life.”
Missouri’s Medical Marijuana Program has issued agent IDs to 1,883 employees in cannabis companies. A requirement for an agent ID application includes a copy of an employment offer from a licensed operator in order to be submitted.
Will Missouri’s cannabis employees find it necessary or important to discuss collective bargaining agreements? Perhaps at some point, but in the first year of a medical market, cannabis positions are heavily coveted and any perception of successful attempts for unions to gain traction are unlikely.