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The cannabis workers union protects cannabis workers from seed to sale

With the industry taking off at full speed, workers across the budding field need protection. That’s why the cannabis workers union organizes everyone from growers, to budtenders, to delivery personnel on a national scale. The union now represents tens of thousands in 23 states, plus the nation’s capital.

The UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) traditionally represents workers in supermarkets and retail, But the union has grown to include workers in a variety of industries, including cannabis workers and the people who make the footballs used in NFL games.

They’ve also taken due credit for supporting legalization in various states. And last month, they helped Curaleaf workers unionize in New Jersey, Illinois, and Massachusetts.

“Our union, including UFCW locals and members throughout the country, have changed the course of legalization efforts for the better, helping to ensure explicit worker protections are included in legislation and shaping the industry from the ground up,” UFCW International President Anthony “Marc” Perrone told Forbes. “Wherever there are cannabis workers interested in organizing, UFCW is ready to fight for them and build a safer, more inclusive industry together.”

The cannabis workers union protects weed employees from seed to sale. That includes growers, processors, lab workers, budtenders, chefs, lab workers and delivery drivers.

The UFCW’s “Cannabis Organizing” is a multifaceted effort to harness the power of cannabis workers, close the wage gap between white workers and Black and Brown workers, and expel tired stigmas about the plant in communities of color. Another key mission for UFCW: Increase the number of license holders of color across the country by removing barriers to access. Access is the key, according to LaQuita Honeysucker, UFCW International’s civil rights and community engagement director.

“Access to capital will undoubtedly assist in cannabis licensing… Access to us also means access for Black and brown people to work in the thousands of other jobs within the cannabis supply chain.”

LaQuita Honeysucker UFCW’s civil rights and community engagement director

While pointing to unionization’s role in narrowing the wage gap for African-American workers, Honeysucker believes that UFCW’s involvement in the cannabis industry during its early stage could make all the difference. “This is an industry that’s very lucrative, and unionization benefits both sides,” she said. “We need to ensure that these jobs are family-sustaining jobs, that workers feel safe on the job. And, for mom-and-pop shops, having a union contract offers some stability. You got built-in pay increases at a certain amount and at certain times.”

Thinking more critically about social equity

Candy Angel (left), Jon Capetta and Norbert Pickett at UFCW meeting in New Orleans. (UFCW)
Candy Angel (left), Jon Cappetta and Norbert Pickett at UFCW meeting in New Orleans. (UFCW)

UFCW consultant Marvin Bing told Leafly that his organization “wants us all to think more critically about social equity.” Bing added, “the union has taken the new cannabis market very seriously, and they’re bringing their community-driven, social equity approach to it. As a result of the work, Bing told Leafly, “Unionized workers in the cannabis industry have access to guaranteed wage increases, full family medical coverage, and paid time off. While retirement plans are restricted by federal cannabis prohibition, the union has negotiated other long-term benefits, such as job skills training programs, college education and scholarships. But perhaps most importantly, union workers have a ‘voice on the job’ and workplace protections when interacting with management.”

“It’s very rare that you get to be in a state that’s creating a brand new industry,” says Nikki Kateman, Political Director for UFCW Local 338, which represents cannabis workers in New York. “We have to make sure the jobs created are good jobs, not ‘Amazon jobs’ and low-road employment. It should be treated as a career and compensated well.”

At the 2022 Black CannaBiz Conference in New Orleans, Norbert Pickett, owner of DC’s popular Cannabliss Dispensary, challenged the common notion that unions and business owners have to be at odds. In fact, for Black business owners, Pickett says the union is an ally. “We communicate, we problem solve together. If there’s anyone intimidated by [unionization], there’s nothing to be afraid of,” he said. Pickett remains proud and confident knowing that when ex-employees move on to join other businesses, or start their own, they are already prepared for success by unions like UFCW.

As a result of the union’s work, employees of Cannabliss make the highest wages of any cannabis dispensary in the District of Columbia, according to UFCW. They also offer health benefits, a matched 401k program, vacation time, and opportunities for training, certification and advancement to their members. Pickett said this helps Cannabliss stay competitive, because employees are motivated to excel in their jobs. He also believes that together, Cannabliss and UFCW are creating a pipeline to entrepreneurship, which benefits Black representation in the space. “We don’t want to keep employees as workers, we want them to go on and do their own thing, whether it’s in transport, processing, branding, retail or other areas.”

What makes UFCW different from other unions

UFCW isn’t the only union organizing cannabis workers, but according to Marvin Bing, Founder and Creative Director of Blackflower, the difference with UFCW is the union’s holistic and community-focused approach.

“They don’t just see people as workers, they see the whole person as well as the community they belong to. That’s why UFCW has been on the frontlines of the fight for expungements and pardons, and equity in licensing for people impacted by the War on Drugs,” says Bing.

That holistic–dare we say, intersectional–approach to understanding their workers, also makes the UFCW an attractive choice for the workers themselves. “workers aren’t necessarily going to trust the union just because we showed up at the job. They want to see our commitment to the communities they belong to, what investments are we making to bring together people who they identify with? Ultimately it’s about where we stand on the issues they care about,” says Fallon Ager, the first Black woman and one of the youngest people to be appointed Regional Director and International Vice President for UFCW.

“We also like seeing a union that is cool and has a little swagger, and UFCW’s Cannabis Workers Rising is checking all those boxes,” adds Bing. 

In the newly legal, adult-use cannabis market of New York, employers will have to sign a “labor peace agreement” in order to get their operating license. This agreement, often referred to as an “LPA” for short, says that an employer will not attempt to interfere with workers who want to organize and join the union.

“Not every cannabis workplace in will automatically be unionized, but to getting a cannabis business to sign an LPA means they agree to remain neutral and not to actively oppose efforts by workers to unionize,” says Ademola Oyefeso, UFCW International Vice President and Director of Legislative and Political Action. “In return, the union agrees not to organize strikes and work stoppages.” 

‘Union workplaces fare better’

“The great thing about high rates of unionization is that even in non-union workplaces, workers fare better. The bar has been set for the industry and the rising tide lifts all boats,” Oyefeso said.

Jarrell Howard, CEO and President of Gold Standard Farms in Tennessee, was inspired to sign an LPA after he participated in a panel organized by the UFCW at the Black CannaBiz Conference. The panel brought together activists, politicians, owners and workers for a deep, equity-focused conversation. 

Howard’s grandparents were sharecroppers who saved $3,000 to buy a farm in Northeast Tennessee. 80 years later, their grandson has transformed Gold Standard Farms into a premium, boutique hemp farm specializing in organic hemp cultivation, seed genetic research and development, and eco-friendly, hemp-based building materials. Howard emphasized the value of hemp to keep the dream of Black self-determination that his grandparents had alive.

“We’re in the ‘soybean capital of the South’, but it’s not making us any money,” he said, as he explained how he convinced his family to make the switch to hemp. Black farmers make up less than 1.2% of farms.

Howard supports unionization for his workers, because, as he says, “I see my employees as a family, because they believed in me. I don’t want them to be stuck on a treadmill, not going anywhere.”

Catching up with UFCW and Black CannaBiz in New Orleans

In addition to the Black CannaBiz Conference in New Orleans, UFCW also led a conversation on social equity at MJ BizCon in Las Vegas this Fall. LaQuita Honeysucker, Director of Civil and Human Rights at UFCW, was a panelist on the opening day conversation Building on 2%: The State of BIPOC Cannabis and the Opportunities Ahead, and UFCW led a panel on Labor Organizing and How It Will Impact the Future of Your Cannabis Operations. The union also partnered with Minorities 4 Medical Marijuana on their third annual Dice Mixer, which gave space to celebrate and amplify social equity brands and operators, along with stressing the importance of social equity for cannabis workers.

In a nation where union rights have been eroded and most labor unions are barely surviving, UFCW’s cannabis organizing offers a hopeful vision for the future. With the cannabis industry on track to be worth $144 billion by the year 2030, the question is how that wealth will benefit workers–or not.

“Every cannabis job should be a living wage job, with healthcare, safety and protections on the job, paid time off, and access to education. That’s the baseline,” says Ager. “Beyond that, jobs in the cannabis industry should provide pathways for growth and advancement. We have the chance, right now, to make sure the cannabis industry is providing meaningful careers that people can grow and advance in, because they are helping build the industry.” 

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Mikhail Harrison

Trinidad-born, New Jersey-raised content producer Mikhail Harrison has been a cannabis advocate and influencer for over a decade, working both on camera and behind the scenes to normalize the plant for all.

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