Dispensary Workers in MA Vote to Unionize Amidst Coronavirus Concerns

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By Dylan Capossela

This year has seen significant victories for Massachusetts workers in cannabis distribution, as workers at multiple dispensaries across the state have voted to join UFCW Local 1445. United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) is an international union representing 1.3 million workers in both the United States and Canada, covering a diverse range of workplaces such as, “grocery and retail stores, pharmacies, health care and manufacturing facilities, and[…] food processing and meat packing industries.” Local 1445 is one of the largest Massachusetts UFCW affiliates, boasting some 13,000 members in retail, warehousing, and distribution. 

In the two years since the first recreational marajuana dispensary opened in Massachusetts – Cultivate Holdings in Leicester – a growing number of cannabis workers are voting to unionize to attain bargaining power, better wages and health coverage. Due to unsafe conditions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, their grievances and need for a union have only grown. UFCW already represented thousands of dispensary employees outside of Massachusetts before the referendum on legalization, and now they are coming to organize the state’s newly formed cannabis workforce.

Cannabis workers vote to unionize

115 workers at Sira Naturals – a medical dispensary with locations in Cambridge, Somerville, and Needham – were the first – and so far the only ones – in Massachusetts to ratify a Collective Bargaining Agreement

This past summer has seen three more units vote to unionize. On July 1, 60 employees from NETA’s Franklin cultivation center voted to unionize and be represented by Local 1445. Only a week later, on July 7, another 40 workers from the Holliston-based Mayflower Medicinals production facility also voted for unionization and to join UFCW 1445. Their struggle had started before the pandemic, and once the pandemic came, the need to improve the hazardous working conditions became crucial. UFCW reported that the drive to join was due to concerns, “about insufficient wages, as well as an unclear and slow response to workplace safety issues by the company in relation to the current COVID-19 health crisis, and a lack of respect by management for the work that they do at the company’s grow facility.” Lastly, in August, agricultural workers at Cultivate Holdings voted to unionize marking the first successful unionization vote among agricultural workers in the cannabis industry in Massachusetts. Cultivate Holdings retail workers are continuing their own struggle for representation.

Backlash from the bosses 

Cannabis workers have had to fight tooth and nail against their bosses every step of the way. Organizing has been especially difficult in the shadow of the  pandemic, which has made physical organizing dangerous and complicated the electoral process. In the case of NETA, employers proved obstinate on the terms of in-person voting. They claimed “that a manual election is the preferred method pursuant to the NLRB Case Handling Manual and will enfranchise the most voters.” Local 1445 had to petition the NLRB for the safer option of  mail-in  ballots, thus robbing employers of the chance to expose workers to disease in the effort to create more time to campaign against the unionization effort. Acting Regional Director of the NLRB concluded in the decision, “under these circumstances, a mail ballot election has no significant drawbacks. It is appropriate because it will protect the health and safety of voters, Agency personnel, the parties’ representatives, and the public during the current health crisis.” 

That it is NETA making these challenges to precautionary measures is particularly puzzling. One wonders how short their memory is, for it was only in late May that they faced backlash in the media when two workers from separate facilities were diagnosed with the coronavirus. Workers complained, saying, “We’ve been telling management for weeks that they have to do something about it. They’re more worried about money than the health of their employees and patients.”

Beyond the issues of voting in person, NETA has also drawn the suspicion of a few with what organizing director for UFCW Local 1445 Fabricio DaSilva calls “selective” firings. DaSilva said they laid off workers, “for the purpose of breaking the union support.” UFCW 1445 claims that  53 employees have been fired for supporting unionization.  

There was also pressure exerted on the laborers from the Mayflower Medicinals production facility by their owner, the conglomerate iAnthus Capital Holdings. Local 1445 claimed that managers directed undue attention and discipline towards workers who were known union advocates, in instances where they had committed minor infractions. Dave Schermerhorn, a Mayflower grower, spoke out about their poor treatment.  “We do so much for this company and the best they can do for us is throw a pizza party once in a while — that ain’t no perk. They don’t care about our rights, and there have been a lot of injustices. At the end of the day, you’ve got a lot of people here who are dedicated and often drive here from far away, and they’re not getting much for it.”

The future of cannabis unionization

The significance of growing union numbers is clear. With more worker representation, there are more benefits, less license for capital to gain profits at the expense of their most essential, value-creating, and – most importantly – human elements. Cannabis unionization is still nascent, but it is only growing as Local 1445 has reached out to other workforces and will surely campaign with the same vigor and resistance to capital it has shown in the battles it has waged over the summer.

It is important to note that a lot of progress has already  been made in a short amount of time. Since Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational cannabis in 2016, multiple groups of workers have already banded together and stuck together through the various assaults of management. Many have been targeted, some have even been fired for their just ambitions. UFCW seeks to represent cannabis works nation-wide as states slowly but surely legalize the sales of recreational marijuana. The stronger wages and the improved benefits should be infectious in the industry and show others working in growing and cultivating facilities, manufacturing and processing facilities, and laboratories and dispensaries what kind of livelihoods await those who withstand the artillery, and beat back the assaults of management. 

To follow up on labor developments in cannabis facilities you can like UFCW Local 1445 on Facebook at this link.

If you or someone you know is in the cannabis industry and is interested in organizing, you can click on this link to UFCW’s website. At the bottom of the page is a “How to get started” button, there for any workers interested in coalescing and demanding collective bargaining.

Dylan Capossela is a member of the Boston Democratic Socialists of America Labor Working Group.

Photo by Aphiwat chuangchoem from Pexels.

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