It’s hardly a surprise that cannabis business owners generally lean left politically. But in California, state labor laws are exposing tensions between progressives and the pot industry. State law requires business owners with more than 20 employees to allow union representatives to talk to their employees about forming a union. As cannabis businesses grow, more and more of them are falling into this category. And many aren’t happy about the idea of letting unions into their shops.
Generally, cannabis workers look to join the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which has made outreach to the industry a major focus. Its Cannabis Workers Rising campaign began in 2010 and continues today. In fact, when California began the process of legalizing recreation cannabis earlier this year, Jeff Ferro, director of Cannabis Workers Rising was picked to serve on a 22-member advisory board.
Unions clearly want to expand their membership to include cannabis industries. Workers at several cannabis farms near Salinas, California have already unionized. Other businesses have Labor Peace Agreements with the UFCW, which promise not to circumvent attempts to organize a union. So far, the high turnover rate among workers in the industry has prevented unions getting a necessary majority vote.
But business owners are still worried. Several businesses have been fined by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for firing employees who tried to unionize. Indus Holding Co., the parent company of Salinas-based edibles manufacturer Altai, was forced to pay back wages and rehire five workers who claimed they were fired for supporting a union. Altai claims that the job losses were tied to “regulated cannabis market conditions.”
That the NLRB would rule on the case is another sign of just how mainstream the cannabis industry has become. Prior to 2013, the board hadn’t addressed cannabis cases at all. Even the idea seemed faintly ludicrous: if cannabis remained a controlled substance, then all cannabis businesses were illegal enterprises and it was unclear whether employees of an illegal enterprise could seek redress from the NLRB.
A union busting case in Maine first brought the matter to the board’s attention. Although the specific case was settled out of court, it inspired the NLRB to draft a memo arguing that the board had jurisdiction over workers in the industry and had a duty to act, when necessary, to protect their rights.
The Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) has also weighed in on cannabis labor cases. The board forced LNB Ventures, another firm operating in Salinas, to rehire and pay back wages to four employees who were fired in 2017. Additional charges were recently filed against the company, this time alleging that they continued to discriminate against the workers after they returned.
Union representatives complain that they are denied access to workers in many cannabis businesses. And so far, action on the part of the state government has been sporadic.
John Getz, an organizer with the UFCW told a local paper that lack of oversight has been a problem.
“There’s little or no oversight from the county or state,” he says. “California through the ALRB gives us the right to go on ag property, and some in cannabis have thrown up every barrier and said, ‘You just can’t walk in here.’”
California is still developing regulations for the broader cannabis industry. Already, spats with union organizers show that even though growers have fought hard for legitimacy, they are less concerned with the finer points of labor law.