Labor Unions: Bringing Stability To An Unstable Industry

The industry that blossomed from the Proposition 215 movement of 1996 didn’t incorporate language regarding pay and labor for dispensary workers, trimmers or other canna-employees. Thus, it was up to the business owners and payroll managers to ensure the employees were adequately paid. As one might guess, that didn’t always happen. Thankfully, the MAUCRSA—California’s new law permitting commercial and adult-use cannabis—has wording to help rectify those issues.


But since 2010, California cannabis workers found another way to ensure their time and labor were accounted for. The United Food & Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) brought structure to black market shops, helping the industry take its first steps toward legitimacy. And in an industry tainted by stigma, gaining authority and respect as a real business has been painfully difficult.


The Orange County cannabis industry leveled up in terms of legitimacy on March 3, 2016. Santa Ana’s South Coast Safe Access (SCSA) medical cannabis dispensary and UFCW negotiated the first dispensary-labor agreement in OC. The contract grants workers paid holidays, paid sick leave, employer-paid health insurance, pension retirement plan, paid vacation, grievance procedure, and livable wages. These benefits are legions ahead of what most budtenders in non-union dispensaries receive for doing the same work.


SCSA made history being the first unionized dispensary in Orange County. And it raised the bar for other dispensaries in the area by not only planting the seeds for growth, but it also creates competition in terms of what businesses offer better work environments.


The Orange County Labor Federation’s UFCW Union Local 324 represents pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, and pharmacy clerks. So, serving retail cannabis employees aligns well with the healthcare and pharma employees UFCW also represent. Furthermore, it adds credibility to the cannabis business to allow their workers the opportunity to learn about their rights and be repped by such a union.


But UFCW isn’t limited to Orange County. In fact, UCFW is one of the largest unions for dispensary employees in Southern California. In Los Angeles, the UFCW Union Local 770 represents many dispensary employees throughout LA County and the surrounding areas. Golden State Collective and UFD Apothecary in Pasadena, Melrose Herbal Collective near Huntington Park, B.E.A.C.H Center in Gardena and California Caregivers Alliance on Sunset Blvd. are some of the unionized retailers in LA.


What’s interesting about UFCW is the fact they’ve also taken on advocacy roles in cities, too. In Pasadena, for instance, UFCW’s helped organize efforts to sway the city council to remove the ban on cannabis. Although the ban remains in place, UFCW hasn’t stopped with public outreach in hopes to change the city regulations over time.


Unionizing is a fascinating trend among workers in the cannabis industry because, since the early ‘80s, unions have been in decline across America. But tapping into the canna-world could help counteract declining union memberships nationally and statewide. Union membership, according to the Cannabist, has fallen from 20.1 percent of the U.S. workforce in 1983 to 11.1 percent in 2015. The drop has been less severe in California, however. 15.9 percent of businesses had union memberships in 2015, which is down from 18.9 percent in 1989.


The ever-changing laws of the cannabis industry have created an overwhelming sense of chaos for those working in the cannabis industry. Thankfully, however, the MAUCRSA requires cannabis businesses with over 20 employees to enter into a “Labor Peace Agreement” with a legitimate labor group, like UFCW. But city governments have the power to alter the number of employees necessary to require a union. For instance, the Labor Peace requirement for the City of Los Angeles applies to cannabis businesses with 10 or more employees.


In sum, unions have become an integral part of the cannabis industry by providing workers with benefits and ultimately legitimizing cannabis workplace environments. In a time when the industry’s transitioning from an unregulated to a regulated market, the stability of a union has never been so necessary.