Attempts to unionize Washington’s cannabis industry workers hit a couple of stumbling blocks this year – including the state Legislature and a global pandemic – but union officials say these are just minor delays.
“UFCW 21 is still the leading union working to organize cannabis workers from seed to sale,” Tom Geiger, special projects director for the United Food and Commercial Workers 21, wrote in an email.
UFCW’s “Cannabis Workers Rising” campaign represents more than 10,000 cannabis workers in 14 states, and hopes to add several thousand more in Washington.
“We continue to connect with workers who would like to see change in their workplaces, a more equitable way of doing business and to raise standards in the i502 industry, as well as owners who understand the benefits of an empowered workforce,” wrote Geiger.
While UFCW hasn’t yet succeeded in widespread unionizing in Washington, it has made some progress. Almost 150 employees of western Washington-based retail chain Have a Heart officially joined the union in 2018. Another company has very recently signed on with UFCW, and the union says it had been making decent headway attracting others when COVID-19 struck.
According to Geiger, “Have a Heart workers that unionized a couple of years ago are still organized in our union and have a contract.”
“Members at an additional retailer have organized and successfully negotiated a first contract with their employer, and as we want to respect the process of voting to ratify that first agreement, we hope to share more details soon,” Geiger continued. “We have ‘Labor Peace Agreements’ signed with other companies, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, however in an effort to be responsible and mindful of ongoing changes and impacts on both workers and companies – we have not executed those agreements.”
A legislative bill put forward earlier this year by Rep. Strom Peterson (D-Edmonds) would have fast-tracked industry-wide unionization in the state by placing strict employment standards on cannabis businesses and incentivized owners to sign contracts with unions. HB 2361, backed by UFCW 21, would have implemented a point system to be used when cannabis companies were up for their annual license renewal.
The system would have required licensees to accrue at least 100 points, as determined by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, in nine different categories, to qualify for license renewal. Having a labor peace agreement in effect would have added 40 points towards that total, while a collective bargaining agreement covering licensee’s employees would be worth 60 points.
That bill failed to move through the state Legislature in the 2020 session, so union officials continue to work to recruit cannabis companies with workers in grow and cultivation operations, manufacturing and processing, and also laboratories and dispensaries. Union officials say they are also looking for ways to improve challenges specific to cannabis use and the industry overall.
“Right now, there is a rising awareness of the disproportionate impacts of the historic criminalization of cannabis on Black and brown communities, so as a union we are evaluating our work in the community and seeking equitable solutions for unique cannabis challenges and impacts in our state,” wrote Geiger.
As with all things, there are pros and cons when considering unionization. Geiger says three of the most significant benefits to union membership are wages, medical and retirement benefits, and job security.
“On average, union members earn about 20% more in wages than non-union workers,” he explained. “UFCW 21 members negotiate for affordable and quality medical and retirement benefit plans across Washington state … All UFCW 21 contracts guarantee that employees cannot be disciplined or discharged, unless it is for a ‘just cause.’”
There is some fear that tacking on union dues to a worker’s paycheck will take away any benefits that could come from higher wages, but Geiger says that’s not necessarily true. Union officials would welcome a chance to show business owners how it can all pencil out.
“We hear you, and we invite you to give us a call: all employers can afford a unionized workforce. We are open to having a conversation with each employer about their circumstances,” he said. “Employees also understand the unique culture working at a small business and from what we’ve learned, those workers take a lot of pride in their workplace and see forming a union as an investment in its stability and success.”
UFCW says unionization can benefit the entire community, as better paying jobs help to support local economies and health care benefits reduce reliance on social service programs.
Tracy Damon is a Spokane-based freelancer who has been writing professionally for 20 years. She has been covering i502 issues since recreational cannabis became legal in Washington.
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