As the state of California continues floundering on releasing the permanent rules under which the cannabis industry will exist, one thing has been made abundantly clear, under even the provisional rules now in place, to everyone from growers to manufacturers to dispensary operators, and that’s this: If you have 20 or more employees and a union representative comes to your business, shows his or her union card and says they want to talk to the workers about forming a union, that rep has to be allowed in. The workers are free to talk to them – or not talk to them – but a company owner or manager can’t wholesale ban the union rep from having the conversation. It’s illegal if they do.
Then it’s up to the workers to decide if they want to take the necessary steps to unionize.
This, for some in Monterey County’s nascent cannabis industry, appears to be a tough lesson to learn. When confronted with the possibility of workers unionizing, some have fired employees, only to be forced by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) to rehire them and pay back wages. Some have had employees followed home from work as a form of harassment. Some have held what are known as “captive” meetings, in which workers are ordered to meet during work hours and advised as to why they shouldn’t form a union.
You’d think an industry that has so long fought for legitimacy and legality would be interested in doing the right thing, or at least the legal thing. But when I expressed that sentiment to John Getz, an organizer with the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union and its Cannabis Workers Rising movement, he scoffed.
“There’s little or no oversight from the county or state,” says Getz, who’s based out of the union’s Washington, D.C. office. “California through the ALRB gives us the right to go on ag property, and some in cannabis have thrown up every barrier and said, ‘You just can’t walk in here.’
“We’re not looking to be adversarial to the industry,” he says. “We want to form unions, but it’s up to the workers to decide. And I’m better off in a knockdown, drag-out fight than I am with a Labor Peace Agreement.”
A Labor Peace Agreement is a promise by an employer that they won’t circumvent a union’s efforts to organize labor. Getz says the UFCW has such peace agreements with eight organizations in Monterey County, including one with Greenfield-based Loudpack Farms. In order to strike a contract there, though, a majority of workers have to agree to form a union and turnover rates have been too high to allow it. Still, Loudpack has been cooperative. So too has Wave Rider Nursery outside of Salinas. (In the end, Wave Rider workers didn’t have a majority and no union was formed.)
Elsewhere, though, it’s been a different story. Indus Holding Co., the parent company of Salinas-based edibles manufacturer Altai, was forced by the NLRB to rehire five employees and pay back wages after they were fired. While the workers contend they were fired after expressing interest in forming a union, Indus, in a statement, said those workers were fired due to “regulated cannabis market conditions” and that “with the health of the market improving, staffing levels have increased” and the company is negotiating with the UFCW.
Salinas-based LNB Ventures LLC was also forced by the ALRB to rehire and pay back wages to four employees fired in 2017 after they moved to unionize. On Dec. 4, the ALRB filed new charges against LNB, alleging the company has continued discriminating against those workers; the allegations include non-payment of wages and reduced working hours.
Also on the receiving end of complaints by the ALRB: Pacific Reserve Nursery/Fuji Fire Flowers, LLC, which was accused in July of refusing a union organizer access on more than one occasion, then surveilling the organizer and employees he spoke to on another occasion when they were allowed on the property. The company has since entered into a settlement with the union and agreed to allow access.
So far, no cannabis workers have formed a union, but it’s likely on the horizon. And with so much money involved in the industry, someone looking out for workers’ rights isn’t a bad thing.
MARY DUAN writes The Local Spin for the Weekly. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at twitter.com/maryrduan