Chronic Problems, COVID, Catalyze Cannabis Workers at Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center

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By Colleen Koperek

“High-Fives and Hugs” for Newly Unionized Cannabis Workers in Rhode Island 

Workers at Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth, RI have announced their intent to unionize with UFCW Local 328. Currently a majority of union-eligible employees signed on to the petition and more are expected to do so in the coming weeks. 

The Greenleaf workers who were involved with the organizing drive asked to remain anonymous and answered collectively; they are referred to in the plural throughout the article. 

The Greenleaf workers cite many reasons for deciding to form a union: a lack of power in decision making for themselves and patients, a reduction in benefits and incentives, a restructuring to address the COVID-19 pandemic, and, more immediately, the firing of two managers “who were both beloved by the entire team and essential to the day-to-day functions of the shop” and who have not yet been replaced. The firings were the catalyst for their decision to collectivize and demand “job security, fair wages, and a safe and healthy work environment.” 

Greenleaf’s response to the challenges presented by the ongoing pandemic, seemed “good on paper,” according the workers, but in practice the requirement to separate the staff into two different groups to mitigate the spread of the virus “created additional stress on staff due to coverage shortages, and that upper management themselves did not adhere to these policies putting everyone at risk, while also failing to provide both groups with adequate PPE.” The divide also created a rift in communication between management and staff, who were receiving no hazard pay as essential workers. The Greenleaf workers say these conditions negatively impacted their ability to the job to the best of their abilities. 

Although some staff had been discussing the possibility of forming a union for months ahead of time, once the managers were fired, the staff mobilized and began working with UFCW. “We quickly learned [that] the vast majority of our coworkers shared these same feelings of powerlessness, exploitation, and alienation. So, explaining to people the utility of an organized union movement at Greenleaf actually came much easier than initially expected,” they said. Once this foundation was built, the workers utilized messaging apps and video conferencing to bring in other workers. They then met with their union rep over Zoom to draft their letter to management with their intent to unionize, meeting nightly for about a week prior to their announcement. 

Many on staff are former or current members of DSA, or had a general idea of the process of forming a union prior to this process. The Portsmouth Cannabis Workers also note the “influence that the Amazon workers in Bessemer, AL had on us, whether it be overt or subconscious. Seeing those Amazon workers take on Bezos makes our movement feel entirely doable, solidarity with them.” 

After meeting in the Dunkin Donuts parking lot across the street, those who were not scheduled to work that day delivered the letter of intent to the C-suite, who 

“were shocked and mostly speechless. As we were delivering the letter the entire B-team shift (who was on the clock) put their union pins on to show how we have full solidarity across both shifts….we walked into the office where our head of HR and head of IT were present. They immediately knew why we were there since we were all wearing our UFCW pins. The head of HR called our COO…and told her to get over to the office, “it’s an emergency.”  A minute later the COO and head of security came running into the office thinking there was a fire or something. But they were shocked to see a handful of their employees who were [there] on their days off. With the help of our UFCW rep we handed the COO our letter, explained why we were there, then we left.

“Once we stepped outside it really hit us what we just did. We organized in what felt like to record time to give ourselves a better working life. Every mechanism of our society is built to prevent something like this happening, and we just made it happen. We all exchanged high-fives and hugs,” said the Greenleaf Workers. 

While the unionization process has just begun, the Greenleaf workers are optimistic about the future. “[W]e see a more equitable work environment where the employees who do almost all of the heavy lifting have a say in day-to-day operations, rather than being left in the dark. I see a future where each of us are being paid a fair and competitive wage. I see a future where our needs as workers are being met, and our lives are being enriched by our work, rather than held captive,” said the Greenleaf workers. 

To those in similar industries who also want to realize their collective power, the workers stress the importance of building solidarity. “Use the process as a means to strengthen the bond between you and your coworkers, because being able to trust and rely on each other is a major advantage when facing an election.” The workers found that clear communication and ensuring that everyone felt heard and supported were key components of their campaign.

Colleen Koperek is a local Boston DSA member and editor for Working Mass who hopes readers support their local immigrant-run restaurants.

Photo Credit: Workers at Greenleaf Compassion Care.

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