Illinois’ weed workers are unionizing at a record pace. Now comes the hard part.

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The late November smash-and-grab attempt came as little surprise to the employees of Windy City Cannabis in south suburban Posen. They had been worrying about safety for months.

So when a masked driver backed a white sedan with stolen plates through the garage delivery door, forcing the store to close for several days for repairs, employees said they thought “of course” having already formed a union to help fight for safety protections.

Efforts started in the fall. Tammee Miles, a budtender, said staff had experienced ongoing problems with abusive or harassing customers. But after a September robbery of a customer by an armed man outside the store, she emailed the organizing director at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881.

“It’s time to unionize,” Miles said.

Miles and her co-workers are among the roughly 17,000 people in Illinois — and half a million nationwide — who work in the marijuana industry, the fastest growing business in the country. It’s also one of the fastest unionizing industries in the country, with workers galvanized by safety concerns, working conditions and pay.

Marijuana sales

In Illinois, legal recreational marijuana sales began on New Year’s Day in 2020. Unionizing efforts quickly followed. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

This surge in union election wins in the cannabis industry is a glimmer of hope for organized labor, which has seen its ranks decline for the past half-century, from a high of 35% in 1954 to 12% today. Most of the unionized workforce is now in the more welcoming public sector — and the reason why recent union campaigns at two of the most well-known Fortune 500 companies, Amazon and Starbucks, have captured public attention.

But those efforts can’t touch cannabis organizing when it comes to wins and signed contracts.

So far, just three years after Gov. JB Pritzker signed legislation legalizing recreational marijuana use, Illinois cannabis workers have voted in 30 elections and reported a healthy 88% win rate, much better than the 61% of elections won by unions across the country in fiscal year 2021.

“I’m 27 years old and I’m tired of working jobs that feel like a dead end,” said another Windy City budtender, Cyndi Kazmirzak. “I want a career. Then I get here and I feel like I’m working at the ‘McDonald’s of Weed,’ getting treated like a teenager. I for one am not going to go down without a fight.”

At the Windy City Cannabis where she works, employees in November voted 13-0 for union representation. The company did not respond to several calls and emails requesting comment on the unionization drive or the recent robbery attempts.

“We see that cash”

In many ways, Kazmirzak might be the ideal cannabis employee, even if her path to budtender, union activist and cannabis podcaster has not been a straight line.

When Kazmirzak was a fifth grader in Plainfield, a police officer with D.A.R.E. (which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education) visited her school to lecture about the evils of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. Kazmirzak subsequently wrote an essay for the school D.A.R.E. contest — “It is my life’s purpose to keep myself and my friends free of drugs” — and won a medal.

Cyndi Kazmirzak

Cyndi Kazmirzak is a budtender at Windy City Cannabis in south suburban Posen and talks about marijuana on her podcast ‘Cyndi’s Smoke Circle.’ Workers at her shop recently voted 13-0 to unionize. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Earlier this year, she started the podcast Cyndi’s Smoke Circle, available on Apple and Spotify, to shoot the breeze with guests about getting high. On the podcast, she says marijuana has helped her treat her debilitating depression resulting from traumatic experiences in her childhood. Like many cannabis employees, she believes in the product and wants to help customers navigate all the choices.

It seems like a union is the best way to do that, she said — and many workers statewide have agreed.

Illinois is one of the nation’s most lucrative cannabis markets, with about 110 dispensaries grossing $160 million in sales each month. Until recently, it has been growing at a frenetic pace, with another 192 dispensaries and 77 small growers — all licensed under the law’s “social equity” provisions — in the pipeline.

Workers say they have been motivated by all that cash — marijuana is still a federal Schedule 1 prohibited drug, so patrons can’t use credit cards.

“We see the cash,” Kazmirzak said. “We know how much they’re making. You’re counting down your personal drawer and you know how much you’re taking home. It’s a flashing neon sign right in front of you.”

Beyond the cash, there are other explanations behind the unions’ success organizing cannabis workers.

Cannabis is highly regulated, and owners can’t easily pick up and move when organizing efforts start. Also, Illinois’ cannabis legalization legislation contains a “labor peace” provision that encourages employers to be neutral and to refrain from campaigns against unionization. (Some states have stronger provisions than Illinois.)

Marijuana

Illinois is one of the country’s most lucrative cannabis markets. Here a worker tends to plants at a Cresco cultivation center in Joliet in January 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The environment here is favorable, too, with its relatively large union membership of 800,000 workers backed by a mostly sympathetic public and its elected officials, said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“The climate overall for union organizing is far better than it’s been in years,” Bruno said.

Powering organizing, too, is an industry experiencing growing pains, the result of a brand new sector scaling up at warp speed. That has led to a lot of confusion, chaos and conflict in the stores, workers said. This, along with worker shortages during the pandemic, helped trigger interest in unionization.

Among other things, employees want fair disciplinary policies, promotional ladders, paid time off, reduced health care costs and the ability to collect customer tips. They also want free samples.

One theme voiced by organizing workers: Many view themselves as working in health care, not just retail, and argue they bring valuable experience and expertise as advisers on the finer points of cannabis use. The starting wage at many dispensaries is still just above the Chicago minimum of $15.40. The pay is usually between $15 and $17 an hour, depending on the store, although some pay as much as $20 an hour, workers said.

The first successful cannabis workplace vote took place in January 2020 in a cultivation center in Joliet owned by Cresco, a Chicago-based multi-state operator. Six months later, a Cresco “Sunnyside” dispensary in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood became the first retail site to vote for the same union, Local 881. The employee union at both locations eventually negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with Cresco.

A second union — Teamsters Local 777 — has joined the party, winning 15 elections in a row and signing contracts with a company that owns two Chicago dispensaries.

“We can’t keep up with all the calls,” said Teamsters Local 777 President Jim Glimco said. At his union hall in suburban Lyons, bus drivers now mingle with budtenders.

“A career for people like me”

While unions have a solid winning streak going, they now face the next grueling step: negotiating contracts. And it may prove challenging to slice a bigger piece of pie off of a business that is highly regulated, federally prohibited and still in its infancy.

Legal cannabis is rolling in cash but not in profits, company executives said, so looks can be deceiving. Stock prices tell part of the story: Cresco and Verano, another Chicago-based corporation that operates in many states, have watched their stocks plummet by more than 75% from highs in 2021. Even as revenues grow, most companies report losses every quarter, and several have started cutting costs, including staff.

Marijuana

The cannabis industry is highly regulated and taxed. A lot of cash comes through the door, but state and local taxes eat up almost a third of revenues. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Where is the money going? Right off the top, state and local taxes take almost one-third of sales in Illinois. For dispensaries, most expenses are not deductible on federal taxes, so that’s another big bite.

There’s more: Traditional banks won’t handle cannabis money; each state operation is a separate unit where the product can’t cross state lines; the cost of borrowing is much higher — and rising interest rates have pushed those costs up further. Cannabis retail operations also have to pay for security guards to protect on-premises cash.

When Cresco regional president Melissa Wagamon started, she said the company was managing its inventory using an Excel spreadsheet. “There are a lot of systems that you would have in place that aren’t in place,” said the veteran of corporate consumer brands such as Miller Lite.

Wagamon and Aaron Miles, Verano’s chief investment officer, said they supported their employees’ right to form a union but also want employees to know they can work directly with the company without a union. Some locations, Wagamon noted, had voted against the union. That happened most recently at Verano’s Zen Leaf store in St. Charles.

Arianna Olson, 24, who started as a budtender and was promoted to agent-in-charge at Zen Leaf in Pilsen, said her drive to unionize stems from a history of “dead end after dead end” and “empty promises” in retail. She said she has gone into debt to pay bills. Union talk among her generation is common, she said.

“What is the company going to do to make this a career for people like me?” she asked.

Aaron Miles, the CIO of Olson’s company, has a ready answer: “It’s going to be on us to make sure we are leveraging the talent.”

The union campaigns have spurred executives to open “lines of communication more,” he said.

“We’re evolving.”

Zachary Nauth is a freelance writer who lives in Oak Park.

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December 1, 2022 at 11:16PM

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