The Cannabis Industry Could Become the National Model for Labor Relations

The cannabis industry has embraced organized labor.

The cannabis industry has embraced organized labor. SHUTTERSTOCK


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COMMENTARY | Workers in the cannabis industry are rapidly unionizing with employer support. This trend, incentivized by state laws, could be a model for improved labor relations nationwide.

In most American industries, workers who want to unionize face impossible odds.

Employers have mounted fierce anti-union campaigns for decades. And federal labor law provides a laughable penalty for those found guilty of violating their employees’ right to organize: the boss must post a sign in the workplace acknowledging wrongdoing.

When the CEO of Barstool Sports threatened on social media to fire any unionizing workers—a clear violation of federal law—he settled the case by agreeing to delete the message and post a notice in the company’s offices about workers’ organizing rights.

Employers can violate the law with impunity, confident that the stiffest penalty they will face barely amounts to a slap on the wrist. It’s no wonder auto workers at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, and journalists writing for Hearst Magazines, encountered such strong resistance when they tried to unionize in recent months.

But the booming cannabis industry is quietly demonstrating that a world can exist where employers embrace workers unionizing by entering into “labor peace agreements.” Currently, three states: CaliforniaIllinois and New York have enacted laws requiring or incentivizing marijuana dispensaries to sign a “labor peace agreement” with a union. And several other states, including Michigan, Connecticut and New Jersey, are considering similar measures.  

Under this agreement, the employer allows organizing drives and provides union representatives reasonable access to speak with employees on work premises. If a majority of workers join—a process known as “card check”—the employer agrees to recognize and bargain with the union. This eliminates the need for a convoluted and protracted National Labor Relations Board election.

In return, unions agree not to strike or picket the employer. This prevents costly business disruptions and bad publicity that often come with a walkout.

Labor peace agreements represent a return to the original, long-abandoned intent of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which explicitly encouraged collective bargaining between employers and unions. And these agreements are producing dramatic results.

Cannabis workers have been unionizing by the thousands, mostly with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. The most recent victory came on January 14, when about 100 workers at a marijuana cultivation facility in Joliet, Illinois voted to unionize with UFCW Local 881.

Across the industry, workers are achieving union recognition and collective bargaining agreements without expensive, drawn out battles, and without their employers spending thousands of dollars to mount ugly anti-union campaigns.

State and local governments have dabbled in applying similar labor peace requirements to businesses seeking economic development incentives or casino operating licenses. But this is still the exception not the rule. Cities, counties and states should embrace labor peace agreements for all licensed businesses, from hospitals to restaurants, as a way to rebalance the power between employers and workers.

While this would represent tremendous progress, a broader national solution is still needed.

All of the Democratic presidential contenders have advocated fixes to federal labor law that would redress the current imbalance in power between employers and workers.

They also support card check recognition and much stiffer penalties than the dreaded sign for employers who engage in unlawful union busting.

The PRO Act recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and supported by the presidential hopefuls lays the groundwork for some of the federal protections that are sorely needed.

In the meantime, it’s up to states and municipalities to ensure workers have the ability to organize without backlash or repercussions.

The rapid and widespread unionization of cannabis workers demonstrates that many workers will choose to join a union when strong regulations protecting their right to do so are in place. With a rebalanced labor law, we could achieve labor peace and a workforce with a voice on the job, decent compensation and the ability to act collectively to achieve long-term economic security.

Rebecca Kolins Givan is an Associate Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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