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In a historic first for Illinois, workers at the Sunnyside cannabis dispensary in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood have voted overwhelmingly to unionize.
Overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, the union certification election was conducted by mail due to the Covid-19 pandemic. After sending in their ballots in May, the workers waited until June 25 before the NLRB announced that 80% of the votes were in favor of unionizing.
“It was a longer process then I think anybody imagined, especially with the added stresses and changes that came with Covid-19,” says Nicholas Stankus, who works as a wellness advisor at Sunnyside. “We were patient, we stood together, and we came through in the end.”
Stankus and his coworkers will now be represented by Local 881 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). After a decade of organizing in the rapidly growing cannabis industry, UFCW represents over 10,000 marijuana workers in 14 states.
The Sunnyside dispensary is owned by Cresco Labs, a Chicago-based cannabis company founded in 2013 at the same time Illinois legalized medical marijuana. While it’s the first dispensary in the state to go union, in January, UFCW Local 881 also unionized a Cresco cultivation facility in Joliet. Both organizing victories come in the wake of recreational weed becoming legal in Illinois on January 1, 2020.
Besides making sure workers benefit from this boom, organizers are working to make sure that the industry actually embraces diversity in ownership and other racial justice provisions.
“The labor movement has been very progressive in saying the equity and expungement component to [marijuana legalization] is central,” says Zach Koutsky, legislative and political director with UFCW Local 881. “We believe that the best equity aspect that can come out of this industry is not to make a bunch of owners rich — it is to provide tens of thousands of good-paying jobs with stable schedules, benefits and wages that can support a family and a community.”
Last year, as the state legislature considered the bill to legalize recreational marijuana, UFCW Local 881 and the Northeastern Illinois Federation of Labor successfully lobbied lawmakers to include a provision promising added preference to cannabis companies seeking operating licenses if they sign labor peace agreements with unions, vowing not to fight efforts to organize their employees.
After the pro-union provision was added to the legislation, organized labor put its full weight behind getting the bill passed. “That brought along a significant amount of votes from Democrats that were frankly indifferent to the idea of legal cannabis,” explains Koutsky. “They weren’t going to go against something that labor now wanted.”
As state and local regulators make decisions on awarding licenses and zoning permits to emerging marijuana businesses, the union is flexing its political muscle. “We’re advocating for those companies that have signed [labor peace agreements] with us and calling out those that have not,” Koutsky says.
In securing labor peace agreements with new cannabis companies, UFCW Local 881 is in a coalition with three other statewide unions to define jurisdictional boundaries within the industry for the eventual organizing drives, with SEIU Local 1 covering security guards, Teamsters Joint Council 25 covering transportation employees, and Operating Engineers Local 339 covering systems maintenance workers.
While the forthcoming marijuana businesses will be more likely to go union thanks to the labor peace agreements, Koutsky notes that most existing companies in the industry like Cresco Labs are still opposing unionization efforts.
Moises Zavala, organizing director for UFCW Local 881, tells In These Times that Cresco ran a standard anti-union campaign at the Sunnyside dispensary, trying to derail the NLRB election by inflating the bargaining unit and misclassifying several workers as managers. “Despite those tricks, the election demonstrates that when workers stick together, they can overcome these obstacles,” he says.
Zavala explains that when the organizing drive started in February, some of the workers were hesitant about unionizing. But when the Covid-19 crisis hit in mid-March and the dispensary remained open even for recreational sales, it “put things into perspective for them.”
“There was a disagreement there about whose best interests were being considered first,” Stankus says of the decision to stay open for recreational sales. “Within that dispensary, it’s around 165 square feet of walking space. When you attach between 8 and 14 people in that area, it’s not safe.” He says management “eventually” provided sufficient personal protective equipment to employees.
Beyond concerns about the company’s response to Covid-19 and other concerns around scheduling and treatment by managers, Stankus contends that the biggest reason he and his coworkers voted to unionize was to “take ownership of their jobs” and “not just feel disposable.”
“We see the longevity of an industry within its infancy. We want to be part of it and truly believe in the positive aspects cannabis brings to people,” he says. “This can be a career for somebody that can climb the ladder. These are very large corporations, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t sow some seeds into their employees and show them they appreciate the work they do with a union contract.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.