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Cannabis Industry Seen as a Target for Union Expansion

Unions are becoming more important in the cannabis industry as legalization increases and workers increase. Unions are becoming more interested in workers’ demands for improved conditions, wages and benefits. 

The U.S. is constantly gaining more revenue from cannabis. It generated approximately $17.5B-$21.3B, and 240,000 to 321,000 full time jobs in 2020. By 2026, it is predicted to be worth $41B. This number could go even higher as legalization is expanded in more states. 

We are already seeing the rise of unionization. The modern cannabis dispensary of Chicago merged in 2021. Many other city businesses have also joined the union. In March 2022, Chicago ratified its first cannabis union agreement. 

“We’re trying to make these careers for the long term, not just one that is a turnover establishment,” says Alex Suarez, who works at Modern Cannabis. “I think the upswing in organization in this country right now is astonishing and we need to keep going over that energy.”

Tonya Townsend worked in Rock Creek at Green Thumb Industries’ cannabis facility when the unionization movement was born. She witnessed some backlash. Their vote failed by a margin of 26-30. 

“There was a lot of union busting. They hired the top union avoidance firm in the country,” she says. “We took them on for about a year. This was an awful lot. It was mental, physical, verbal, daily abuse from these guys – they fought us tooth and nail the whole way. These workers are reaching out to us for help, so that’s unusual. It used to be we were seeking them out and now they’re coming to us. Our phones are ringing constantly with workers who want protection, higher wages, better benefits and accountability from these companies.” 

The rise in membership has also been felt by unions. The retail sector has seen gains over the past few years. 18 out of 26 union election held in 2021 were successful. Most cannabis unions come from the United Food and Commercial Workers and Teamsters organizations. They are also leading more campaigns for unions as legal states and more businesses go online. 

“There are plenty of people who are having to choose between feeding themselves and putting gas in their car to get to work, which is just kind of mind-boggling, considering it’s a multibillion-dollar industry,” says Maddi, who worked at Ayr Wellness in Massachusetts in 2018, before unionizing. Now, she is an organizer with UFCW Local 1405.

Six states currently have laws that encourage or require labor agreements to license medical and recreational marijuana businesses.

When recreational cannabis was legalized in New Jersey in February 2021, the law included agreements to protect workers’ union organizing efforts. Most cannabis workers are represented by the UFCW.

“We were the first organization and labor union to step up to the plate and say this is a valid industry and these workers should not be treated like criminals,” says Hugh Giordano, organizing director of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 360 in New Jersey. “We hope to have 100% union density before the adult use conditional licenses are up and running.”

In 2021, 500 cannabis workers formed unions in cooperation with the Teamsters.

“When more states legalize recreational cannabis, we can’t let them simply make more minimum-wage jobs available,” says Teamsters general president Sean O’Brien. “We’re demanding careers, backed and safeguarded by Teamster contracts.”

Today, the sector is actually growing. This growth along with increased activity in unions will lead to more unions in the future.