California Big Labor Eyes Growth Potential in Marijuana Fields

A whole new set of workers will be declared as recreational marijuana moves towards legalization in California. Now, big labor unions are looking to capitalize on the rare opportunity.

There are tens of thousands potential workers with their foot in the legal marijuana industry. And the United Farm Workers (UFW), Teamsters, and the United Food Workers are looking to unionize them. Organized big labor membership has stalled lately, and the move could certainly boost that front.

Cesar Chaves, co-founder of the United Farmworkers, says they have experience organizing industries rooted in agriculture. Chaves states growers could use the union logo as a marketing strategy for products. The National Vice-President Armando Elenes went on to say,

“If you’re a cannabis worker, the UFW wants to talk with you.”

Other Unions Make Their Claim

big labor
via UFCW

However, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has also registered its intent to organize cannabis workers across the country. They represent grocery-store employees, meat packers, and retail workers. While UFW clearly has an “in” with growers, UFCW has made it clear who they strive to represent. UFCW spokesman Jeff Ferro says,

“We would hope they respect our jurisdiction.”

Kristin Heidelback, the organizer of Teamsters, says there’s no need for an all-out Union battle. She notes as small businesses transition to large pharmaceutical companies, there will be a plethora of workers needed representation. These unions need simply to adhere to their strengths.

Opportunity to Regain Union Influence

According to David Zonderman, professor of labor history at North Carolina State University, union influence began declining in the late 1950s. This “green rush” starting in 2018 marks an opportunity to regain some of that influence. But resistance from cannabis entrepreneurs and discontent between unions could destroy that opportunity. Zonderman says,

“Are they going to be new-age and cool with it, or, like other business people, say, ‘Heck, no. We’re going to fight them tooth and nail?'”

Labor officials estimate that recreational marijuana in California has the potential to employ at least 100,000 workers. Jobs range from harvesting and trimming plants to creating concentrates and edibles to delivering it to storefronts. Phillip Martin, an agriculture economist at the University of California, says cannabis in California is already a $22-billion dollar industry. That includes medical marijuana which has been legal since 1996 and a massive black market.

California: Friendly Territory for Unions

Marijuana at Canna Can Help Inc., a medical marijuana dispensary in Goshen, Calif. Labor unions are vying to represent California cannabis workers who grow, sell and deliver it when a new law takes effect in 2018. (AP Photo/Scott Smith)

Marijuana workers have embraced big labor and started to organize in other states, but California should be a friendly territory for unions. Californian laws tend to favor employees and the state has one of the country’s highest minimum wages. In addition, it has the largest number of unionized workers across industries.Some workers seem to be open to the idea of unions. Thomas Grier, a budtender at Canna Can Help Inc. says,

“I’m always down to listen to what could be a good deal for me and my family.”

Grier says no unions have contacted him yet. He gets along with his boss and is worried about union fees, but is still open to the possibility of forming a union. Los Angeles resident Richard Rodriguez came around to the idea of unions after a rogue traffic stop. The officer pulled Rodriguez over while delivering a legal shipment of marijuana. He was detained for 12 hours until a union lawyer stepped in. Rodriguez was released without even a ticket. Rodriguez says,

“Most companies can’t or are unwilling to do that, because employees are easily replaced.”

With cannabis still illegal federally, unions can offer some protection to organized workers across the United States. And it seems like a good option given past results produced.