Can unions organize cannabis industry workers, some stoned, some sober, others undocumented and still others with college degrees?
The upsides: a unionized industry could help improve wages and working conditions for people who labor in California’s cannabis fields, warehouses and shops. Unions could also help the industry as a whole by rendering it more transparent, and by raising standards for the health and safety of employers, employees and consumers.
The downsides: a wobbly workforce that’s still laboring underground in many cases and that doesn’t really need the union dues on top of the onerous tax burden that comes with compliance. With the increasing corporatization of the industry, there’s also more pressure to please investors by keeping labor costs to a minimum.
Meanwhile, there’s not one or two, but three unions angling to ramp up their rolls with the Silicon Valley cannabis labor pool.
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)—the only labor group to officially back Proposition 64, which legalized adult use in 2016 and launched the system of regulation and taxation that’s now in place—is one of the unions pushing to organize weed workers in Silicon Valley.
“We’re still considered the major union pushing the regulatory and legislative efforts in the state,” says Jim Araby, the UFCW’s executive director for the Western States Council and the point person for cannabis-sector unionization in California.
The Cannabis Workers Rising campaign in the South Bay, however, is still in its infancy. Araby is still conducting outreach with workers and conversing with cities—Santa Clara, Sunnyvale and even Milpitas, which recently voted to ban commercial pot sales—about creating a regulatory structure that grows the industry. It will be interesting to see if he makes any headway with Santa Clara County’s Board of Supervisors, which with a labor-aligned majority in 2018 voted to ban pot sales in unincorporated parts of the region.
For existing canna-businesses, time is limited.
Under the state law, all cannabis businesses with more than 20 employees must sign a labor peace pact as a condition of qualifying for renewed licensing by this spring. In San Jose, where regulations mandating vertical integration created some of the largest dispensaries in the state, that requirement applies to all 16 permitted pot businesses.
Despite a tight deadline, organizers expect a long adjustment period for the industry, which has undergone dramatic transitions from the black to gray markets—where workers had little recourse against problems like harassment, wage theft and other symptoms of extreme power disparities—to today’s heavily regulated legal reality.
Elsewhere throughout the Bay Area and beyond, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), whose drivers already transport legal weed throughout the state, is pushing out into the fields and warehouses of agricultural swaths of the region. It’s a challenge to obtain accurate information about where and what the Teamsters are actually doing on the ground in the Bay Area on the cannabis front—in part because there’s competition between rival local labor organizations that nobody in the union-advocacy movement wants to talk about, at least on the record.
It’s understandable that the union doesn’t want to tip its hand about its organizing plans and invite sabotage at the hands of “right to work” agitators. And it’s a touchy prospect going in: Some cannabis companies are still very much underground or straddle a gray border that divides the legal and the illegal.
For its part, the UFCW asks that the Teamsters kindly step back. “The UFCW has a Cannabis Workers Rising Campaign,” UFCW spokesman Jeff Ferro says. “We would hope [the Teamsters] respect our jurisdiction.”
The United Farm Workers also hopes to organize a share of the industry. “If you’re a cannabis worker, we want to talk with you,” UFW national VP Armando Elenes says.
Another Teamster spokesperson who requested anonymity says the union is aware of competition from the UFW and UFCW. One difference, she says, is that Teamsters don’t want to be organized-labor militants. “We aim to be an advocate for the industry,” she says, “not a thorn in its side.”
Organizers note that there’s still some lingering bitterness in California’s Central Valley between the UFW and the Teamsters, who tried to elbow out Cesar Chavez’s organization in the 1970s. But it was a different Teamsters in the ‘70s—in bed with organized crime and with corrupt ex-convict Jimmy Hoffa as its leader. The union has taken great pains to reform its image and organization since its mid-‘70s low point, when Hoffa disappeared and was presumed to be killed by the Mafia. He still hasn’t been found.
It’s a different union today, even if it is headed by James Hoffa Jr.
Kristin Heidelbach heads the Teamsters Cannabis Division in the state capitol, travels widely, speaks publicly and provides a recognizable name and face to an industry that has historically been reluctant to go public.
Heidelbach worked closely for more than a decade with her mentor, Barry Broad, a Teamsters lawyer from 1985 until his retirement last year. For much of his career, Broad focused exclusively on cannabis issues. “Government officials,” he says, “had been uncomfortable dealing with people in the underground economy. Once the Teamsters unionized workers, it helped legitimize the industry.”
Broad says cannabis workers have suffered in the black market because they haven’t been paying into or accessing Social Security, unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation. “There has been a dark side to the cannabis industry,” Broad says. “There’s been use of child labor, which is against the law, and there has been a lot of pot on the market with fungus that’s not fit for human consumption. We’ve helped to clean up the whole industry in more ways than one.”
Heidelbach carries on Broad’s legacy. Over the past three years, she has staked out the Emerald Triangle, made up of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties, for organizing pot workers. The Emerald Triangle has for decades been the heart of the California cannabis industry—though it’s losing ground to Salinas, Monterey and Santa Barbara, where municipalities are eager for tax revenue from the emerging economy.
Heidelbach is presently focused on working conditions in the Emerald Triangle and beyond, where the pot workers are often pleasantly stoned. But many are also unhappy with the long hours, the repetitive work and the demand to turn out product quickly.
“A lot of trimmers and dispensary workers are treated unfairly,” she says. “They need representation because they’re often afraid to speak up, lest they lose their jobs. At one place, I was told, ‘We’re good to our workers, but you can’t talk to them. They’re idiots.’”
Along with the condescending tone directed at workers, Heidelbach has also gotten an indifferent, if not cold, shoulder from big commercial operators in the Bay Area. One local industry spokesman who insisted on anonymity says the weed biz is so squeezed by taxes and regulations that it can’t survive further squeezing by the Teamsters.
The new taxes that are part of the Prop. 64 legalization regime have made it nearly impossible for individuals without big financial backing to enter the market. Immigrant trimmers in the cannabis industry are also pretty wary of the uptick in union agitation.
Rosa (not her real name) is 25 and from Central America; Santiago (not his real name) is 29 and from South America. She has a passport and a visa; he has no legit papers. What they make in four months here lasts a year back home. Three years ago, they earned $25 an hour as trimmers. By 2018, the wage had dropped to $15.
Working conditions are onerous—they put in shifts of up to 14 hours and are under near-constant surveillance—but Rosa and Santiago haven’t sought union representation and say they won’t strike or rock the boat. Santiago worries about Rosa. “She has trimmed on remote farms where growers hit on her,” he says. “There’s little, if any, protection.”
Jennifer Wadsworth also contributed to this report.