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Oregon Cannabis Workers Push to Unionize

What are the Implications for Oregon Cannabis Workers if Unionization Efforts Expand 1600 900 px

Workers at a cannabis grow in Gresham, Oregon, recently made headlines following a walk out over potential safety issues and allegations that employees were fired because of their interest in forming a union (the company denies all wrongdoing). While Oregon saw some successful union organization efforts at the beginning of legalization, specifically in retail, the walkout in Gresham may signify a renewed push toward unionization across the industry. This blog post will discuss the implications for Oregon cannabis workers if unionization efforts expand, what other legalized states are doing to further the mission of cannabis focused unions, and how unionization could advance equity in Oregon’s cannabis industry.

Implications for Workers

Benefits workers receive through unionization often include higher wages, overtime pay, mandatory annual raises, paid sick leave, health and dental insurance, retirement benefits, and improved working conditions and scheduling. A 2021 report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimated that cannabis workers could earn $2,810 to $8,690 more per year if they join a union. Even workers at non-union business could benefit from expanded union efforts as non-union enterprises are forced to compete for employees with unionized enterprises that typically offer better employment conditions and benefits.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is currently the largest cannabis union in the United States claiming over 10,000 members in the cannabis industry as of 2021. UFCW Local 555 is the union workers from the Gresham cannabis grow are hoping to join. While the union currently represents workers at some retail dispensaries, union spokesperson Miles Eshaia stated in an article with Willamette Week that UFCW Local 555 does not currently represent employees working in grow facilities. The lack of organization for cannabis growers is likely the result of the fact agricultural works are exempt from the National Labor Relations Act, as well as being exempted from similar statutory protections under Oregon law.

Cannabis Union Efforts in Other States

The main mechanism other state’s employ to further unionization in the cannabis industry are Labor Peace Agreements (LPAs). These agreements are essentially pledges where employers allow their employees to explore unionization without fear of reprise, with employees agreeing to not go on strike or boycott in the interim as they debate and contemplate unionization. California statute requires that a marijuana license applicant with 20 or more employees provide a notarized statement that they will or already entered into an LPA with their employees. Similar statutes exist in New Jersey, New York, Illinois, and Virginia.

Unionization efforts in these states rose significantly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The surge is likely attributable to the unstable employment conditions caused by COVID-19. The impact of the pandemic on workers in Oregon is reflected via the City of Portland Cannabis Emergency Relief Fund that provided grants to cannabis workers impacted by the pandemic. Increasingly dire conditions within the Oregon cannabis industry may be the catalyst that pushes for stronger union action and organization.

Advancing Equity

Oregon is one of the legalized states to not implement an equity program to ensure that the benefits of legalization reach the Black and brown communities targeted by cannabis criminalization. Despite equity efforts in these other states, the number of Black owned cannabis enterprises is decreasing. Equity legislation is certainly coming to the Oregon legislature soon, and pairing equity efforts with labor union initiatives could work in tandem to ensure equity programs benefit workers of color throughout the industry.

The EPI report cited earlier in this piece found that workers of color who are union members earn up to 32% more than their non-union counterparts. Union contracts can advance the interest of minority workers by requiring employers to implement hiring practices that reach out to historically underserved communities, and require apprenticeship programs to help workers learn practical skills that increase their earning potential. Union contracts could also require employers to not bar employees because of a past marijuana convictions, which would advance equity as people of color historically were and are still today disparately arrested for simple possession of cannabis (despite the fact marijuana use does not vary by race).

A common facet of cannabis equity programs is incentives for businesses to hire workers from BIPOC communities most impacted by the War on Drugs. Relatedly, a benefit of increasing minority owned businesses is that these businesses are more likely to hire minority workers. Unionizing workers can ensure that workers from communities most impacted by the War on Drugs benefit from equity legislation, rather than just the higher-ranking employers who secure equity licenses for their businesses.

Conclusion

The increasing revenue generated by Oregon’s cannabis industry often fails to benefit industry workers, many of whom are hourly employees working without benefits and in less-than-ideal working conditions. Organizations in Oregon like the Cannabis Worker Coalition are already working to represent the interest of Oregon cannabis workers, and increasing involvement from UFCW and other labor organizations may signify a larger push toward unionization in the industry.

You can contact Brett Mulligan at  info@gl-lg.com  or 503-488-5424

Brett Bio Block