Business

Labor Tensions Escalate in Massachusetts Cannabis Industry

By Hilary Corrigan Aug 20, 2020
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Late last year, the United Food & Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 1445 successfully organized workers at a Massachusetts cannabis business. 

When Sira Naturals found out its workers wanted to unionize, management didn’t fight it, Local 1445 Secretary Treasurer Fabricio DaSilva said. The national UFCW started putting resources toward organizing workers in Massachusetts, seeing it as a destination for big cannabis companies. DaSilva thought Sira Naturals would set the tone for the state.

“That was not the case,” he said.

As states legalize cannabis across the country, unions see an opportunity to ensure solid wages and safe working conditions at the dawn of a high-growth industry. The national UFCW started its Cannabis Workers Rising campaign in 2010. According to its website, the union represents tens of thousands of cannabis workers across multiple states, working in cultivation, manufacturing and processing facilities, as well as labs and dispensaries.

As in other industries, cannabis companies aren’t necessarily on board with unionizing efforts, saying there’s no need for it. And in Massachusetts some companies are pushing back at organizing efforts.

“The legal cannabis industry is a newly regulated market that can offer local communities jobs with strong wages and benefits that can’t be outsourced,” UFCW’s website notes. The union says it aims to build a “successful industry with a thriving, diverse and skilled workforce” wherever cannabis is legal. Jobs with better wages and benefits “are vital to keeping our economy afloat and families out of poverty,” the site says.

Union tactics vs anti-union tactics

Tensions between unions and company management have surfaced at New England Treatment Access (NETA), one of the largest cannabis companies operating in Massachusetts. Workers at a company cultivation site agreed to join the union while workers at a dispensary voted against it. Both the company and the union have raised objections over the results.

Last month, workers at NETA’s Franklin cultivation site agreed to join the union. Under state law, agricultural workers can use an easier process to do so, involving signing cards rather than going through an election, DaSilva said. NETA formally objected to state regulators over workers’ use of that process.

According to NETA, the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations has held the workers’ union petition in abeyance until the National Labor Relations Board determines whether it or state regulators have jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, UFCW has filed several complaints against NETA at the National Labor Relations Board over the past couple of months, all alleging anti-union efforts and retaliation against workers including at the company’s Brookline, Mass. dispensary, near Boston. In an email, NETA said it has not yet responded to any of the complaints against it because the National Labor Relations Board has not yet asked the company to do so.

In the middle of an organizing campaign, NETA said, “union tactics such as filing complaints are not uncommon. We deny each of the complaints filed against us.”

The company said it “strives every day” to provide employees “with an environment that supports them and their work, not only with progressive wages and benefits, but through a close collaboration with NETA’s leadership.” The company also said it supports “everyone’s right to join or not join a union, but because NETA already offers progressive wages and benefits​, as well as a collaborative work environment, we don’t think a union is needed.”

UFCW expands its efforts

The union has added more cannabis members this summer in Massachusetts.

Last week, workers at cannabis company Cultivate Holdings’ LLC’s facility in Leicester, Mass., agreed to join the union. That site also used the process for agricultural workers. DaSilva said that while Cultivate tried to discourage workers from unionizing, the company did not object to employing the process for agricultural workers. The workers officially become union members once the union negotiates a contract with their employer and the workers accept it. Cultivate did not respond to requests for comment.

In July, workers at the Mayflower Medicinals dispensary voted to join Local 1445. DaSilva says the company used anti-union tactics like trying to dissuade workers. A union press release at the time said the Mayflower workers sought to improve their working conditions, citing a lack of health coverage, for instance. They also cited concerns related to COVID-19, including a slow response from management and a need for clear workplace policies and procedures. Mayflower did not respond to requests for comment.

Does cannabis need unions?

DaSilva expects to see industry-wide attacks on unions to escalate. He views it as a way to avoid paying workers better wages and providing benefits.

Challenges to unionizing cannabis businesses are similar to those seen in other industries, according to Gabriel Camacho, political and organizing director of UFCW Local 1445. Larger corporations have much more money and the ability to use “under-handed tactics” to dissuade workers from joining unions, Camacho said. For instance, they use “union-busting law firms and/or consultants” who talk to workers one-on-one at work sites during work hours to try to dissuade them from unionizing–a move that Camacho notes can be intimidating.

Part of Local 1445’s efforts also entail trying to set conditions on REC licenses issued by the state cannabis regulator. For instance, the union seeks to require companies to agree to labor peace agreements that prevent them from interfering if workers try to organize.

“A natural fit”

UFCW has represented workers in food production facilities, warehouses, retail and other areas. “So we were a natural fit” to represent cannabis workers from all stages of that industry, Camacho said.

Local 1445 is also in negotiations with other cannabis businesses in the state and says it is close to finalizing agreements. “It’s very new in Massachusetts,” Camacho said of the cannabis industry. “The industry is in its infancy here.”

“It’s a younger workforce, that’s for sure,” compared to other industries, Camacho said. “Very smart workers.”

UFCW has a stronger presence in California, where it has operated for years, establishing itself in the industry before the state legalized REC–and possibly paving the way for other states to follow

Camacho says the benefits of unionizing include workers having a say in how they do their work, including on safety issues, work shifts and the number of hours they work. “Unions are the only way workers can have a democratic say in the workplace,” Camacho said.

Industry in infancy

To DaSilva, the beginning of the industry is the right time to establish a strong union presence. By comparison, he says unions didn’t take an aggressive approach with supermarkets and now the companies are too big for local unions to organize.

“They’re going to be the next Walmart, the next Target,” he said of cannabis businesses. “So we need to do it now.”

DaSilva wants to see cannabis businesses grow and succeed. “We have no problem with CEOs making millions of dollars,” he said. But not while paying workers low wages and skipping 401Ks and healthcare. These are professional jobs that deserve good pay and benefits, he argued. And they should be careers for these workers rather than high-turnover jobs.

UFCW also seeks to start Massachusetts’ first trade school for cannabis industry workers. Still in the planning stages, it could launch next summer.

The Massachusetts cannabis industry already has 8,000 to 10,000 workers. If it grows much bigger, DaSilva says it will be difficult to organize and companies will gain leverage. “The idea is to hold them accountable right now,” he said. Companies that disagree are motivated by “Greed and control.”

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