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Labor Unions Are Hoping to Organize Cannabis Industry Workers in California

Legalization in The Golden State could boost unions’ dwindling enrollment, as well as protect employees in an industry that’s yet to be fully regulated.

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The impending legalization of recreational cannabis in California is expected to bring a boom of new jobs into the state, and several unions are now hoping to organize the workers that will fill them. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), United Farm Workers (UFW), and Teamsters unions have all expressed interest in enrolling cannabis industry employees throughout The Golden State. The ganja boom in California could bring over 100,000 new workers into the state's industry, labor leaders have estimated. These new jobs range from growing, harvesting, and trimming plants, to transporting products, processing raw plant material, or working in a retail store.

"If you're a cannabis worker, the UFW wants to talk with you," national vice president Armando Elenes said, as reported by ABC News. UFCW spokesperson Jeff Ferro stated that his organization is already working to organize cannabis workers, and hopes that other unions will "respect our jurisdiction." Teamsters organizer Kristin Heidelbach was more optimistic that there were enough employees working in the industry to allow every union to enroll significant numbers of new members without needing to fight over membership.

David Zonderman, professor of labor history at North Carolina State University, said that a new wave of cannabis workers could boost the strength of unions, which have been waning since the 1950s. However, Zonderman also warns that infighting amongst unions could ruin their chances of expansion. Canna-business leaders could also oppose the unionization of their workers in order to save money on employee compensation and benefits. Zonderman said that an important question is whether these business owners will "be new-age and cool with it, or, like other businesspeople, say, 'Heck, no. We're going to fight them tooth and nail?'"

Union organizers have been working with medical and recreational cannabis employees in canna-legal states for years now. The UFCW already represents thousands of cannabis workers working "in dispensaries, coffee shops, bakeries, patient identification centers, hydroponics stores, and growing and training facilities" throughout six canna-legal states and Washington, D.C. The Teamsters union began enrolling cannabis growers and trimmers in Northern California back in 2010.

The federal prohibition of marijuana prevents banks from dealing with canna-businesses, forcing these businesses to pay their employees in cash. In turn, this leaves cannabis industry employees in a difficult situation, with no 401K, no direct deposit options, and no paycheck stubs to serve as proof of income. Federal prohibition laws also leave the cannabis industry unregulated, allowing unscrupulous employers to avoid paying health insurance or provide other protections that other employers are federally mandated to offer.

Unions are able to step in on the behalf of workers in order to ensure that employers respect employees' basic rights and advocate for state or federal laws to protect workers. Unions have traditionally fought for living wages, retirement and health care benefits, and safe working conditions for workers in numerous industries, and hope to serve cannabis industry employees in the same fashion. Earlier this year, the UFCW reached an agreement with one of the two licensed medical cannabis companies in Minnesota that guaranteed annual wage increases, hiring premiums, and expanded wages for their employees.

Unions are also able to provide access to legal representation for individual employees who would never be able to afford such services on their own. In Los Angeles, cannabis industry employee Richard Rodriguez said that when he was pulled over and detained for over 12 hours by police for delivering a legal shipment of medical marijuana, a Teamsters union lawyer helped him get out of the situation without being arrested or even ticketed. "Most companies can't or are unwilling to do that, because employees are easily replaced," Rodriguez explained to ABC News. In other words, unionization could greatly benefit the many new workers in this budding industry, especially when cannabis regulations and employee protections are still in their infancy.

For more on cannabis jobs, revisit MERRY JANE News' short, "Working for Weed: The Best Jobs in the Marijuana Industry"