Strange bedfellows — U.S. labor unions and the emerging Cannabis industry
By: Paul Josephs
The membership and strength of labor unions in the United States has been diminishing steadily on a national level since 1954, when the percentage of workers belonging to unions peaked. Since this time, unions’ attempts to increase membership have met with very little success. Given the inherent challenges created by the discrepancies between state and federal regulations in many parts of the country, many are wondering if unionizing Cannabis workers could help protect the emerging industry while boosting union membership. One union, The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), has been particularly active in lobbying for the medical Cannabis industry. What can unions such as the UFCW offer the growing Cannabis industry, and how can Cannabis workers, in turn, help unions?
Union membership in the United States is declining for a number of reasons. One large factor is the existence of right-to-work laws in 24 states that prevent unions from requiring membership dues from workers in unionized industries in those states. This reduces the amount of money coming into the union coffers.
The changing nature of the workplace environment has also had a detrimental effect on union membership. Large US manufacturing industries — a traditional union stronghold — are struggling to compete with cheap labor in other countries. Additionally, many young people entering the workforce do not see themselves working for the same company or industry for their entire working careers and, therefore, do not see the need to join a union.
The UFCW is the nation’s largest retail union with 1.3 million members, and they have taken the forward-thinking step of forming a Medical Cannabis and Hemp Division. The UFCW is a good match for the Cannabis and hemp industries as they represent workers in food, healthcare, retail and textiles. The UFCW once had thousands of members in the medical Cannabis industry — mostly in California — but federal government raids on dispensary businesses there have put a dent in that number.
Meanwhile, as union membership continues to decline, a new industry in the form of medical and recreational Cannabis, and hemp production and its affiliated businesses is experiencing very rapid growth. Unions see this as a newly emerging industry that is struggling for legitimacy and protection from the US Department of Justice, and it’s an industry that will potentially create hundreds of thousands of jobs generating billions of dollars. The UFCW, in particular, has put a great deal of effort and resources toward promoting legislation at both the state and federal levels, and for good reason: These very workers are potential union members.
Despite Colorado having approximately 30 percent fewer unionized workers than the national average, the UFCW invested a lot of time and energy in actively promoting the passage of Amendment 64 in that state.
The unions realize that if reforms to Cannabis laws continue in other states that have friendlier attitudes toward unions, their potential membership will increase accordingly. New York currently has a 23.2 percent union membership in a comparatively large workforce, and has a bill in the legislature to allow medical Cannabis. States such as New York that do not currently recognize legal medical or recreational Cannabis are big prizes for unions looking to increase their membership from emerging businesses.
Unusual circumstances breed trust
Normally, unions and business owners do not see eye-to-eye on many matters, but the Cannabis industry benefits from union support at both the local and national levels. Unions offer a legitimacy that the Cannabis industry needs, and the emerging Cannabis industry offers a chance for struggling unions such as the UFCW to increase their membership numbers. Many Cannabis business owners welcome the support that union lobbyists offer the legalization movement, while, at the same time, employees feel somewhat safer because of this same support.
What Cannabis business owners and employees need more than anything from unions is protection from and support against US Department of Justice actions that block Cannabis-related businesses. The UFCW and other unions cannot directly prevent punitive actions by the federal government, but they do continue to lobby hard for the support of legal medical Cannabis and hemp cultivation. By helping to implement change in government policy they can offer protection in that manner. Unions not only have far more resources to accomplish change in governmental policies, but also the experience to do so than the less-organized emerging Cannabis industry.
One fear that some business owners and employees share is that by affiliating with a union such as the UFCW, they might draw unwanted attention from the very same federal government agencies they seek protection against.
There may well be a honeymoon period for Cannabis workers, business owners and unions in the beginning stages of this alliance, but that will surely change if Cannabis is redefined by the federal government and the Cannabis industry gains national acceptance. Then the unions will focus on their primary role of protecting the workers from unsafe work environments, helping ensure fair wages, benefits and job security among other worker advocacy roles. This is something not every employer will support, because costs related to employees will rise if they are unionized. But eventually facing these issues is far better than not having any employees at all because of the unfriendly legal environment.
Both the unions and the Cannabis industry stand to gain much from this alliance. If the movement toward legalization and regulation of Cannabis is successful, it will bolster the entire US economy. A thriving Cannabis industry will create thousands of desperately needed jobs, and unions will work to attract these new employees as potential members. In a time when outsourcing many jobs is a common reality, it would be a welcome change to see large numbers of new jobs created in our country with a sustainable resource. With a legal Cannabis industry, foreign competition will not be a big issue because it is a rapidly renewable domestic product that has multiple applications in the US and great export potential for many associated products.
Cannabis and unions are indeed an unlikely alliance, and this is a crucial time for both parties. Unions need a stronghold to prevent their continual decline, while the Cannabis industry needs protection, legitimacy and unification. This partnership could prove beneficial for both groups down the road — but first, that road must be built.