Labor Unions Planting Seeds in California Cannabis Industry

California is already the largest cannabis market in the U.S., projected to rake in more than $5 billion this year. That sum looks irresistible to the state’s organized labor unions, as the Associated Press reports that unions are vying to represent the California cannabis industry.

The only problem? There are three different unions angling to broker for the state’s marijuana industry. And it’s possible that none of them will successfully do so.

“The United Farm Workers, Teamsters and United Food and Commercial Workers are looking to unionize the tens of thousands of potential workers involved in the legal weed game, from planters to rollers to sellers,” writes the AP’s Scott Smith. “The move could provide a boost to organized labor’s lagging membership — if infighting doesn’t get in the way.”

This infighting is rooted in all three unions hoping to represent California’s entire cannabis industry, rather than divvying up individual industry sectors among themselves.

The Teamsters fired the first salvo and have courted the industry aggressively with the formation of a Cannabis Council. “Tens of thousands of jobs will be created in California as part of this industry, and we want them to be good jobs and Teamster jobs,” said President of the Teamsters joint council for Northern California Rome Aloise in an email published by the Las Vegas Desert Sun.

Not to be outdone, the United Farm Workers — the organization co-founded by legendary labor activist Cesar Chavez — is also making inroads. “If you’re a cannabis worker, the UFW wants to talk with you,” national vice president Armando Elenes told the AP. The UFW see themselves as the most logical fit for a plant cultivation industry.

But another union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, considers themselves to be the go-to union for food and drug industry workers and retailers. “We would hope they respect our jurisdiction,” UFCW spokesman Jeff Ferro said.

There are an estimated 100,000 employees in the California marijuana industry. The unions see representing cannabis as a conduit to regain leverage for the lagging union movement. Some unions even say they can influence the state’s still-evolving marijuana laws in ways that benefit the sector.

“Teamsters can use our political clout to help them get through that. We’re not always successful, but we try," director of the Teamsters’ Cannabis Council Kristin Heidelbach said in a press release.“

Each California city must approve (or outright deny) its own local cannabis sales laws and regulations, and additionally, marijuana businesses at every level must be licensed by the state. That’s a huge minefield of possible legal violations to navigate, many of which were written on the fly and are difficult to interpret.

"We ask that the companies develop a labor peace agreement. This means that when they staff up, if the employees choose to be represented by a union, the companies will accept that choice," the statement said.

California’s cardinal marijuana law, the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MAUCRSA), does decree that all cannabis companies must negotiate a labor peace agreement with their workers.  

But all three unions face the same complicated barriers to representing the industry. First, they must organize employees who are completely new to the concept of unions and are used to operating underground. Weed trimmers have not traditionally paid union dues.

Then comes the really hard sell of getting cannabis business owners to accept unionization efforts that could hurt their respective financial bottom lines.

“Are they going to be new age and cool with it, or like other business people, say, ‘Heck, no. We're going to fight them tooth and nail’?,” North Carolina State professor of labor history David Zonderman told the AP.

And as with all things marijuana-related, the federal prohibition of cannabis presents massive hurdles to unionization. A large component of California’s legal (and black market) cannabis workers are internationals, known as “trimmigrants.”   

International emigrants cannot join an American union unless they’ve acquired U.S. citizenship. This is a problem for unions trying to penetrate that sector.  

Still, unions have been invariably helpful to the fledgeling California marijuana industry. Truck driver Richard Rodriguez points out that he was detained on the ticky-tack charge of “following too closely behind a semi-truck,” and union lawyers went the extra mile to get him immediately acquitted.

“Most companies can’t or are unwilling to do that,” he said, “because employees are easily replaced.”

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