Weed That’s Legal and Union: Marijuana Dispensary Becomes First in Illinois to Unionize

Jeff SchuhrkeJune 29, 2020

A Chicago weed dispensary just became the first in Illinois to unionize. (Photo by Alberto Ortega/Getty Images)

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 12020.

The cannabis indus­try is expect­ed to cre­ate 745,000 jobs in the Unit­ed States by 2025, with 63,000 jobs in Illi­nois alone. Fur­ther, the indus­try is set to exceed $23 bil­lion in sales by 2022.

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.”

Jeff Schuhrke is a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor based in Chica­go. He has a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst and is cur­rent­ly pur­su­ing a Ph.D. in labor his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go. He was a sum­mer 2013 edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke.
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