Guardian Article: Booming US cannabis industry seen as fertile ground for union expansion

As cannabis legalization has spread throughout the US, workers in the now booming new industry are pushing to unionize, seeking to ensure the sector provides good-paying union jobs with benefits throughout its supply chain.

In 2020, the cannabis industry grossed between $17.5bn and $21.3bn in revenue, providing between 240,000 and 321,000 full-time jobs, and is expected to grow to $41bn by 2026. Nineteen states in the US have legalized adult recreational cannabis use, with Rhode Island most recently legalizing adult recreational use in May, and 38 states have legalized medicinal use.

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Alex Suarez has worked at Modern Cannabis dispensary in Chicago, Illinois, since February 2021, a few months before she and her co-workers voted to unionize.

She said many dispensaries in Chicago have been unionizing, and that they have promoted their first union contract, which was ratified in March 2022, as an example for other workers who are unionizing to follow. The contract permits customers to tip workers and guarantees annual raises, seniority rights and 40 hours a week for full-time staff.

“We’re trying to make these careers for the long term, not just one that is a turnover establishment,” said Suarez. “I think the upswing in organization in this country right now is astonishing and we need to keep going over that energy.”

report by the Economic Policy Institute in September 2021 noted federal legalization proposals have emphasized investing and prioritizing communities of color that have been hit the hardest by cannabis criminalization, but have failed to ensure that workers are supported in their ability to organize and work in jobs with quality wages, protections and benefits.

The report noted workers in cultivation, processing and retail could make thousands of dollars more on average annually with a union or high job quality standards.

Tonya Townsend worked at a Green Thumb Industries cannabis facility in Rock Creek, Illinois, during one of the first union organizing campaigns in the cannabis industry in the state, in 2018 and 2019. The union came up short in the union election in a 26-30 vote.

“There was a lot of union busting. They hired the top union avoidance firm in the country,” said Townsend. “We took them on for about a year. It was a lot. It was mental, physical, verbal, daily abuse from these guys – they fought us tooth and nail the whole way.”

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