Don’t let the goal of legalization drown out the call for worker’s rights in the cannabis industry

As the cannabis industry pats itself on the back for being branded an “essential business” during the COVID-19 epidemic, more and more employees are being forced into the untenable position of having to work during a global pandemic. The viral conditions have forced at least five dispensaries in the Midwest towards what Marijuana Business Daily calls a “tipping point,” where already tense labor conditions have now reached an apex, pushing employees to call for unionization.

And while the industry itself is often given a free pass when it comes to fair labor practices due to it being inherently representative of a more liberal-leaning cause, the salt-of-the-earth wage workers often find themselves at odds with corporate management types in the age of marijuana branded for millennials and soccer moms.

According to Marijuana Business Daily, which took great pains to note that unionization efforts would cost multistate operators thousands of dollars in additional operating costs every year, employees across the sector have been trying to unionize for years, with varying degrees of success. Organizing activities by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and others have sought to bring workers higher wages and better benefits, but have, for the most part, fizzled out.

As is typical in many pro-management stories, Marijuana Business Daily manages to interview corporate representatives who greatly respect worker’s rights but who, at the same time, feel they have done plenty to protect the health and safety of their employees.

“In connection with COVID-19, we have altered our delivery model, where permissible, and revised our staffing and cleaning schedules,” Linda Marsicano, vice president of corporate communications of Illinois-based Green Thumb Industries, wrote in an email to Marijuana Business Daily.

“We have implemented social-distancing measures and other health- and safety-focused operating procedures, including the provision of personal protective equipment, to align with federal, state, and local requirements and recommendations on COVID-19, she continued.”

In other words, why would they want more when we’ve given them so much?

Of course, buried deep in the story, it turns out that the employees of these cannabis operators may not have as much as one may think. According to Marijuana Business Daily, who interviewed Moises Zavala, organizing director for UFCW Local 881 in Illinois, workers have for months registered complaints about low wages, last-minute schedule changes, and health and safety issues — the basic things that should make one grateful for having a job in the first place.

Zavala told the website that the employees had hoped management would improve the conditions, but watched for months as nothing happened.

As Megan Carvalho, director of organizing for UFCW Local 328, told Marijuana Business Daily, “Workers are realizing that big cannabis operations are not doing 100% right by them.”

And these issues are in normal working conditions. Now with the novel coronavirus causing confusion and uncertainty at every turn, workers are also putting their lives at risk. 

According to the article, five petitions were filed by the UFCW last month, with employees attempting to unionize at Cresco, Curaleaf, Medmen, and others, in Illinois and Massachusetts. What happens next, however, is anyone’s guess.

For years the cannabis industry has fed off of the goodwill of its customers without giving any of it back to its employees. The growth of corporate cannabis — a cookie-cutter, pre-packaged, big-box store copy that cares more about the bottom line than the holistic worldview — can no longer straddle the line without ponying up for the people that keep the business running. Goodwill can only last so long in an industry where the hardest working people see the smallest reward.

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