COVID-19 Pandemic Is Inspiring More Cannabis Industry Workers to Unionize
Frustrated by the lack of safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic, cannabis industry workers in Illinois and Massachusetts are trying to unionize.
Published on May 5, 2020

Although many American businesses have shuttered over the past six weeks in the name of slowing the spread of COVID-19, most states see the benefit of allowing cannabis businesses to continue operating during the quarantine. This decision allowed thousands of weed industry employees to continue working while millions of others are out of work. But, these "essential" workers are also putting themselves at greater risk of exposure to the virus.

Some cannabis industry workers in Illinois and Massachusetts are fed up with employers' lack of regard for their safety and are on a mission to unionize. A weed workers' union would be able to help employees negotiate for improved safety measures, higher pay, benefits, and reasonable work schedules. Employers often resist their employees' attempts to unionize, as successful union drives can force them to increase pay and benefits, which can raise operating costs substantially. 

Businesses also stand to benefit from workers' unions, though. Unionized employees are often more loyal to their employers, once they feel that their basic needs are being taken into consideration. Happier employees also tend to provide better customer service, and are also less likely to quit, which reduces businesses' training and hiring costs. 

Several national union organizations, most notably the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), have courted weed industry workers for years with only modest success. Interest in unionization is now picking up steam, however, now that frustrations over poor working conditions have reached a boiling point during the current health crisis. 

“It wasn’t until this crisis hit us that these workers realized that nothing has changed and it will never change, so we have to do something about it,” said Moises Zavala, organizing director for UFCW Local 881 in Illinois, to Marijuana Business Daily. Zavala added that workers in Illinois have been concerned with low wages, last-minute rescheduling, and safety issues, but hoped that their employers “would eventually do right by them and provide better wages and benefits.”

But some businesses’ lackluster response to the pandemic has convinced workers that their bosses do not have their best interests in mind. Last month, the UFCW filed petitions to represent employees at four legal weed retailers in Illinois. The first two of these petitions, which were to be distributed to employees of MedMen Enterprises in Evanston and Nature's Care in Rolling Meadows, were withdrawn late last week, however.

Zavala said that the delay of these petitions is only temporary, caused by the recent hiring of new employees. Still, he said he expects unionization efforts to continue at both of these locations. Union leaflets have also accused Cresco Sunnyside, in the Chicago suburb of Lakeview, of paying low wages, constantly changing schedules, and failing to provide adequate safety protections against COVID-19. 

Cresco spokesperson Jason Erkes disputed these claims, telling Marijuana Business Daily that his company “immediately implemented additional health and safety protocols surrounding COVID-19, including increased sanitation, regulated social distancing, a reduced on-premise work force, sneeze guards, and accessible PPE (gloves and masks), as well as an essential-pay program for all of our frontline essential workers.”

Unionization efforts are also ramping up at Curaleaf medical marijuana dispensary in Hanover, Massachusetts. Although store employees have credited Curaleaf with providing adequate protections against the pandemic, they are hoping that joining a union will help guarantee their working hours, pay, and benefits. Employees are also asking to be recognized and included in decisions regarding the future growth of the company.

So far, none of these unionization attempts have succeeded, but union ballots were mailed out to Cresco employees this Monday. Employees will have until May 22nd to decide whether or not they want to form one of the country's first cannabis industry employee unions.

Chris Moore
Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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