The growing fight between unions for cannabis workers

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UFCW Local 881 organizers demonstrating in June 2021 outside of Cresco Labs’ Sunnyside’s Champaign, Illinois facility. Seven months later the union signed a contract with Cresco. Credit: Submitted / UFCW Local 881

Two unions are racing each other to organize cannabis workers, and they’re not working together, creating an unspoken line of strife within the labor movement. It has the potential to confuse cannabis workers attempting to organize, and maybe even create a long-term fissure in the labor world.

At the center is a growing fight between The United Food and Commercial Workers and The International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Mostly the two unions have been separately racing to organize dispensaries and cultivators with little strife. But on occasion, the two unions have directly clashed on worksites, competing in elections for the same workers.

But unions generally deal with well established, stable industries. In that way, cannabis is unlike most other businesses. The cannabis industry is a complete greenfield for unions that historically, nobody had ever attempted to organize, because it creates a class of workers that didn’t legally exist until recently. For labor unions this is an exciting prospect, since it creates a whole new pool of workers that could provide dues and political power to the unions able to organize them.

According to union officials speaking to Grown In off the record, almost two years ago the United Food and Commercial Workers was blessed by the AFL-CIO Executive Council, the top arbiter between American and Canadian labor unions, to organize the cannabis industry. The decision made historic sense, since UFCW represents retail workers, like most grocery store workers, and food processing, like alcohol distilleries and meatpackers. 

But among unions, UFCW is considered underfunded and a weaker organizer than others. This is largely because UFCW mostly represents lower wage workers and recent immigrants, unlike many industrial or government worker unions, who tend to charge higher dues from higher earning workers.. 

Compounding UFCW’s problems, labor advocates have charged UFCW with taking too long to organize the cannabis industry, allowing multi-billion companies to spring up and establish expectations of what they charge to be low wages and poor working conditions for budtenders and cultivation workers.

Labor groups tend to be territorial about the industries they organize. It’s usually right there in the name: United Food and Commercial Workers, United Auto Workers, American Federation of Government Employees.

The industry lines are important to unions, because the larger your pool of organized workers, the more dues you collect, thus the more organizing you can do, and thus the more political power you can wield among other unions and against bosses. Also, as companies have become more resistant to unionization, organizing has become more costly, so unions with larger membership have the ability to wage larger organizing campaigns.

Sometimes the lines between industries get blurred. Maybe two different unions agree to share the industry, or sometimes one union is failing and unable to mount an organizing campaign, so another union steps in. But the most disturbing to labor peace is a raid, when one union mounts a campaign to steal the workers of another union through a worker vote. A rare occurrence, raids are a heated occasion for any union organizer, and they sometimes bring on physical fights between groups.

To avoid clashes between unions, almost 140 years ago labor unions formed the American Federation of Labor, and later a sister organization, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which are now joined into one group, AFL-CIO. The formation of the two groups largely put a stop to raids and intra-labor strife, which for labor unions usually centers around which group is more or less in collaboration with business leaders. The AFL-CIO Executive Council, made up of leaders of the various unions, is meant to moderate disagreements and to determine which union will organize which industry. Despite these organizational safeguards, disputes do still occur. 

While UFCW has been organizing in labor-friendly California for some time, until last year it didn’t have many efforts in other union-friendly, cannabis-legal states like Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Incidentally, this was a busy time for UFCW organizers already, since the union was busy advocating for their existing front-line workers in grocery stores and food processing plants – so called “essential workers”, which often did not receive much protection against COVID while they were still required to work on site.

Meanwhile the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has stepped into the breach to organize cannabis workers that UFCW has not had the resources to reach out to. A union with a burly reputation for representing truck drivers, Teamsters has actually expanded into many industries, as its traditional base of truck drivers has shrunk over the years. Today, Teamsters locals represent police officers, government workers, nurses, and even college library workers.

In Illinois, Teamsters began aggressively working to organize cannabis workers – on two occasions actually competing against UFCW to organize dispensaries. Contacted for comment, labor organizers for both unions have fervently denied to Grown In that there is any actual competition between the two unions. But over the last 12 months, the two groups have conducted organizing campaigns at over two dozen cannabis facilities, with no clear geographic or other dividing line. 

One organizer told Grown In anonymously, that whichever Illinois union local gets an organizer to workers first gets to lay claim to the worksite. But that hasn’t always been the case, since at least twice in Illinois, the two unions have gone head to head in union elections for workers.

Last month a group of Teamsters locals in Illinois, known as Joint Council 25, announced the support of their International president for plans to organize cannabis workers – with no mention of other unions.

“We will be dedicating significant resources to organizing cannabis workers in Illinois and fighting to get them strong contracts,” said Sean M. O’Brien, Teamsters General President. “The Teamsters will be leading the fight to legalize and unionize this industry, both at the state level and nationwide.”

Asked for comment, UFCW organizers in Illinois wouldn’t agree that there’s a fight between the two groups, but one organizer pointed out that cannabis is turf Teamsters shouldn’t be working on.

“We respect the demarcations determined by our International Union. Local 881 has jurisdiction from UFCW International for Cannabis workers in the state of Illinois, we got this a few years back, because we have been unionizing Cannabis workers and actively involved in helping lobby for medical and recreational legislation for nearly a decade,” said Maggie Vis, spokesperson for UFCW Local 881 in Chicago.

Now it appears that the competition between Teamsters and UFCW is spilling over into Massachusetts. Last week a Teamsters local trumpeted a successful election victory over UFCW to represent workers at an Ascend Wellness Holdings dispensary in Boston. With their win, Teamsters officials made it clear they were going to compete directly with UFCW for this new group of workers.

“The Teamsters are the strongest and most well-positioned union to protect cannabis workers, in Boston and beyond,” Teamsters Local 25 President Tom Mari said in a press release. “We’re tough, militant, and dedicated to standing with workers at Ascend to get them strong contracts like the Teamsters have in so many industries.”

Grown In has contacted UFCW and Teamsters officials in Massachusetts multiple times for this story, but neither group has responded to requests for comment.

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September 12, 2022 at 07:34AM

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