As more legal cannabis dispensaries open their doors throughout the country, the likelihood that unionized workers might be behind the counter is becoming more of a reality. Whether they advise customers on new strains, cultivate marijuana crops, or secure dispensaries, these newly unionized workers stand at the cutting edge of an emerging and rapidly expanding industry.
Zion Grey-El is one of those unionized workers. As a “budtender” at Have a Heart Recreational Cannabis Dispensary in Tacoma, Washington, his pathway to unionization started with employment as a dispensary security guard at a non-unionized store. With experience as an army medic and a self-described curiosity for cannabis healing properties, Grey-El became part of the industry with unique opportunities.
Grey-El worked his way up from security guard to the trusted role of budtender—a dispensary staff member with a wide range of cannabis knowledge who’s responsible for offering suggestions to customers, answering questions, and showcasing cannabis products and accessories. Ultimately, he was laid off from his first dispensary job after a management change. However, Grey-El remains in the cannabis industry because of the stark differences he experienced between his first dispensary and his current union shop.
“I just felt different working at my new store. Nobody was stepping on pins and needles,” said Grey, 34. “And beyond that, you finally got the security of good benefits. Healthcare. Dental care. Paid time off and equal distribution of tips.”
With estimated cannabis sales approaching a whopping $57 billion by 2030, and President Biden preparing to sign bipartisan legislation passed last week to advance federal cannabis research, the movement to unionize workers seems to be growing parallel to the industry.
Today, with more than 158 million Americans living in a state that has legalized marijuana, more people visit local dispensaries to seek out Cannabis’ healing properties in the wake of the ever-expanding opioid crisis plaguing America. The calls for dispensary and cultivation workers have increased—with wages, expanded benefits, the narrowing of gender and racial wage gaps, and erasure of the strife caused by the failed War on Drugs taking center stage.
According to Frederika McClary Easley of the People’s Ecosystem (TPE), the cannabis industry is a microcosm of the current economic system, riddled with inherent racial barriers to entry. TPE, a women-led company focused on providing brighter futures for communities through cannabis, is working to break down these barriers.
“This plant is being legislated and regulated because Black, LatinX, and indigenous communities showed just how profitable it can be, and present-day ownership nor leadership reflect their contribution,” said McClary Easley, TPE’s director of strategic initiatives. “Today, 80% of the industry is owned by white people, primarily men. Unfortunately, this is not the road less traveled.”
While voters in Maryland and Missouri voted to legalize marijuana this past election cycle, the work to create equity has lagged behind the movement to legalize the plant. A 2020 ACLU report shows that Black Americans are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis-related offenses than their white counterparts. And between 2018 and 2019, data compiled by the FBI found more than 1.2 million cannabis arrests across the United States.
To shift this troubling dynamic, McClary Easley believes those with skin in the game can’t get left behind. She said, “to protect those that were preyed upon and disrespected; collective efforts will be necessary.”
“Organized labor historically has been the vehicle used to empower and usher in systems and practices that protect the people and support upward mobility,” McClary Easley noted. . “The cannabis industry is not exempt.”
Since 2010, the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) International has been working to advocate for and organize these cannabis workers. Today, the union claims to represent tens of thousands of them in 23 states and Washington, D.C.
“Our union, including UFCW locals and members throughout the country, have changed the course of legalization efforts for the better, helping to ensure explicit worker protections are included in legislation and shaping the industry from the ground up,” UFCW International President Anthony “Marc” Perrone said. “Wherever there are cannabis workers interested in organizing, UFCW is ready to fight for them and build a safer, more inclusive industry together.”
With cannabis workers in their ranks that range from processors, budtenders, chefs, and lab workers to cultivators and delivery personnel, the UFCW International sees their “Cannabis Organizing” campaign as a multi-pronged effort to increase the power of workers’ voices, break the stigma around cannabis that exists in communities of color, increase the number of minority cannabis dispensary license holders and level the equity playing field in a rapidly growing industry.
According to LaQuita Honeysucker, UFCW International’s civil rights and community engagement director, the cornerstone of their campaign is about access. “Access involved a lot of things,” she said.
“Access to capital will undoubtedly assist in cannabis licensing,” Honeysucker continued. “Access to us also means access for Black and brown people to work in the thousands of other jobs within the cannabis supply chain.”
While pointing to unionization’s role in narrowing the wage gap for African-American workers, Honeysucker believes that UFCW’s involvement in the cannabis industry during its early stage could make all the difference.
“This is an industry that’s very lucrative, and unionization benefits both sides,” she said. “We need to ensure that these jobs are family-sustaining jobs, that workers feel safe on the job. And, for mom-and-pop shops, having a union contract offers some stability. You got built-in pay increases at a certain amount and at certain times.”
Grey-El said a union contract has created a less volatile workplace and allowed him to provide housing for his wife and six children. A union contract has also given him the ability to return to the classroom under Cannabis Workers Rising, the union’s accredited apprenticeship program.
As a current union steward, Grey-El believes that more unionized workers can help set up national standards for training budtenders, creating customer reference materials, extracting cannabis concentrates, and handling marijuana flowers.
Michael Davisson, a budtender at Lume Cannabis Dispensary in Monroe, Michigan, believes the union made all the difference in creating a sustainable work culture.
“We aren’t asking for the moon,” said Davidsson, 40. “We are fighting for day-to-day stuff.”
After deciding to authorize a union election, workers at the cannabis outfit granted immediate changes to the uniform policy and approved the utilization of tip jars at their location. As the workers currently bargain their first contract with Lume, Davidsson sees the future as bright.
“Lume’s response shows that joining a union in this industry can be viewed in a positive light,” he said.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is another union pushing to organize cannabis workers nationwide.
According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, the high-road scenario for cannabis legalization offers the industry an opportunity to be a model of good jobs. Through unionization, the report outlines how existing unionized cannabis businesses are benefiting from a formalized workers’ voice.
Beyond that, the report clarifies that cannabis workers of color would likely get a more considerable wage boost from unionization than their white counterparts.
As the industry continues to grow, Washington, D.C., and state capitals alike will watch and see if the unionization of its workers grows at the same rate.