Marijuana is going mainstream by the day. For proof, look no further than Orange County, where workers at a local medical cannabis dispensary voted to unionize in March.
That makes the employees of South Coast Safe Access some of the first in the nation to join a union – specifically, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 324. The dispensary employs more than 20 people, though not all work there year-round. The owners of the marijuana business signed a labor agreement with the local union in early March.
“This is a game changer,” said Derek Worden, the dispensary’s president. “We’re bringing something to the industry that really doesn’t exist.”
The workers’ new contract guarantees a starting wage of $13.50 an hour, plus health benefits, vacation, and pension contributions. They will also be able to bargain collectively for better wages in the future.
The legal marijuana industry may not seem the most obvious fit for organized labor. Cannabis users tend to be fairly libertarian, at least in popular imagination. But in fact dispensaries and labor are tightly linked. The UFCW supports campaigns to license more dispensaries, and the union’s ties to existing shops are already strong.
Provision of new medical marijuana regulations
New medical marijuana regulations, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, sparked the negotiations that led to the contract. Among other provisions, the law requires cannabis businesses that employ 20 or more workers to formally agree not to interfere with unionization efforts.
If those businesses don’t submit written agreements to the state, they will be ineligible for the MMJ licenses California officials plan to issue starting in 2018. The staff at South Coast Safe Access opted to move long before the deadline, casting a unanimous vote to unionize.
The cannabis shop isn’t the first in California to join a union. The UFCW started signing contracts with Bay Area dispensaries in 2010. But the South Coast Safe Access vote marks the first instance of collective bargaining by dispensary employees in Southern California.
Local 324 represents about 23,000 members who work in retail food and legal drug industries. Its region includes Orange County and southern Los Angeles County.
Legitimizing the marijuana industry
“We saw an opportunity to bring that legitimacy to the cannabis industry through not only just providing safe working conditions,” but also pushing for worker training policies, said the locals’ executive vice president, Rick Eiden.
Other Santa Ana dispensaries and their employees are also discussing union membership, Eiden said. It’s unclear how much worker support there is for the idea, but the vote at South Coast Safe Access suggests it’s strong.
The workers’ vote is a boon not only to them but also to the union – and to organized labor generally. Recent decades have seen declining membership in unions as the federal government has made it harder to unionize. Between 1983 and 2015, union membership in the United States dropped from 20 percent to just 11 percent.
California is a union-friendly state, so locals here have seen smaller declines, from 19 percent in 1989 to 16 percent in 2015. But organized labor is under continued assault from conservative politicians across the country, including California.
The UFCW is actively pushing for cannabis reform with a campaign to legalize the drug for recreation in the November election. The union supported a 2010 legalization initiative, though that failed at the ballot box.
How do you think unions should go about marijuana reform? Should more dispensaries unionize? Comment below.