SEIU backs Prop. 19 and courts a hip sector of workers.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
The debate over the legalization of marijuana has burned for decades, but has largely been waged between the political establishment and a grassroots movement trying to get the government off its back. But as the pot industry has blossomed and the political conversation matured, a third stakeholder has sprung up: the growers who produce the green gold, nestled between hungry consumers and forces of law and order.
And so the labor movement has joined the Great Pot Wars in California.
Forty medical-marijuana growers in Oakland, for instance, have signed up for the Teamsters Union, reports the Associated Press. The new members work as gardeners, trimmers and cloners for Marjyn Investments, an Oakland business that contracts with medical marijuana patients to grow their pot for them. Their newly negotiated two-year contract provides them with a pension, paid vacation and health insurance. Their current wages of $18 per hour will increase to $25.75 an hour within 15 months, according to the union.
The work can be difficult and the hours long – and trimmers cannot count on federal labor regulations to protect them while doing work banned under federal law.
Perhaps portending a possible turf war, the SEIU just lept into the fray as well by endorsing California’s legalization bill, Proposition 19, possibly risking a bit of its own “respectable” image in order to invest in the validation of an active, vibrant and probably pretty cool set of workers.
EMPLOYEES MAY TEND MORE TOWARD CHILLAXING THAN PICKETING.
But this isn’t about mass unionization, yet. With full legalization still a political uncertainty, organizing growers would be difficult in a disperse, marginal marketplace, where employees may tend more toward chillaxing than standing on a picket line. What Prop. 19 could do is bring the pot sector aboveground, by removing restrictions on cultivation and possession and allowing taxation by cities and counties, injecting revenue into local coffers.
Meanwhile, the labor movement is catching wind of more long-range prospects and challenges that might be on the horizon under legalization.
Earlier this year, the United Food and Commercial Workers began reaching out to the emerging pot proletariat, which encompasses the dispensary clerks, indoor farmers and distributors – likely numbering in the thousands – who run the soil-to-spliff pipeline.
It’s unclear whether the unionization action is a direct response to labor-management tensions; perhaps cannabis culture’s relatively progressive bent has sustained solidarity between workers and employers. But in California, sudden commercial expansion might bring an explosion and diversification of the industry, creating new opportunities for wage disputes and workplace discrimination conflicts. (Will graying hippies be squeezed out of sales positions at dispensaries? Would undocumented immigrants be employed as agricultural workers?)
Unions could be a powerful voice in workplace regulation and oversight, as the current lack of government regulation in the sector opens political terrain for unions to act as collective-bargaining liaisons. With union support, the industry could develop along socially responsible lines by providing decent, equitable work.
None of this will yield huge gains for the embattled labor movement as a whole. But the pot-labor synergy suggests that organizers are thinking creatively as they seek to stake a claim in the bud boom. Whether Prop. 19 succeeds or fails, it looks like the legalization battle has moved beyond the domain of tie-dyed slackers. Both labor and capital are taking the pot industry seriously, and now it’s the government’s turn to mellow out and go with the flow.