When it comes to organized labor and legal cannabis, we’re still reading the opening chapters of what will ultimately be a much longer story.
Thus far, what is known is mostly scarce and state-specific. That makes sense, given weed remains illegal at the federal level. Unfortunately, this rather large roadblock to meaningful reform has forced labor organizers to go at it from a piecemeal, state-by-state approach.
In California, however, a recent victory by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 (UFCW 5) suggests that future efforts by cannabis employees to organize may soon become a more common occurrence in the Golden State. By successfully ratifying a union contract with the workers of San Francisco’s Stiiizy-Mission dispensary in October, the UFCW 5 has established a precedent that promises to attract its fair share of suitors.
The UFCW 5, a 30,000-member union based in Hayward, is one of several groups now actively working to organize cannabis labor in the U.S. Understandably, much of the action has been focused on California, but dispensaries in Massachusetts and Illinois have also recently reached agreements.
The Stiiizy-Mission success was announced in a press release, issued in October by the UFCW 5. Noting the contract was ratified following three months of negotiations, the release also offered specifics on what workers, who ratified the contract unanimously, can expect.
Those details include salary increases that average $3 per hour over the life of the (three-year) contract, as well as a pathway to full-time work, employer-provided health insurance, and an employer sponsored retirement savings account.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to appreciate how far things have come that one can now have a retirement savings account tied to their legal profession in the cannabis trade. In terms of subtle milestones that signify an industry cementing its longevity, employer sponsored retirement savings accounts are a great sign.
Of course, nothing happens on its own.
That’s why unions like the UFCW have been working for years to get cannabis workers organized, both within the state and across the country. Some states, like California, actually require businesses of a certain size to enter into a labor peace agreement.
Asked for comment on the news of Stiiizy-Mission’s contract ratification, Alex Traverso, Chief of Communications for California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control, referred SF Weekly back to this point.
“If they have more than 20 employees, a labor peace agreement is required,” Traverso confirmed.
Thus, with the matter fairly clear-cut as far as where state officials stand — when asked for comment, San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis and Department of Public Health both referred SF Weekly to the Bureau of Cannabis Control — the work will fall to outfits like UFCW 5.
According to their release, UFCWC 5, who did not return multiple requests for comment, alone represents roughly 10,000 workers in the cannabis industry nationwide.
Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, Audie Vergara, Director of Corporate Communications for the Shryne Group, which operates the Stiiizy-Mission dispensary, offered optimism that what’s happened at the Stiiizy-Mission store will be embraced by more players in the industry.
“We think having a strong labor voice at the table at the beginning of a new industry will help demonstrate a successful partnership that helps reward everyone taking part in the expansion,” Vergara said.
He also noted that, for now, there is no formal requirement to unionize — though some licenses are issued on condition of a labor peace agreement being in place — but that still doesn’t mean the best idea is to wait until the state demands it.
“The industry was crafted with labor unions in mind for everyone but small microbusinesses,” Vergara explained.
UFCW’s release announcing the contract also featured a quote from Stiiizy-Mission budtender Kat Gonzalez, who emphasized the need to recognize workers as the legal cannabis industry continues to expand.
“It has been a long process,” Gonzalez said, “but it’s all worth it in the end. It feels good to know we have a team like UFCW 5 behind us to protect our rights as workers and help us advance in our careers within the cannabis industry.”
Gonzalez also made a point about the need for longevity and job security when it comes to budtenders — something the COVID-19 pandemic has assuredly only made all the more obvious.
“Every position is important in cannabis and being a part of the union ensures that budtenders are the backbone of the cannabis industry,” she noted. “We are not disposable, and our jobs deserve protection; it feels great to have that recognized.”
Zack Ruskin’s weekly column, Pacific Highs, covers cannabis. Twitter: @zackruskin