How New York’s marijuana law is planting seeds for union push

Bizar Male

The union representing the workers said the agreement sets a standard for the marijuana industry, which is primed to grow exponentially.

“There will be 30,000 to 60,000 employees working in marijuana in New York, and we think they should all be union,” said Joseph Fontano, secretary-treasurer of Local 338. “All workers are entitled to dignity and respect on the job.”

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act signed by Cuomo this month requires that any applicant for a license to grow, distribute or sell cannabis products enter into a labor peace agreement with a union. In a labor peace agreement, employers agree to stay neutral if their employees attempt to organize and unions agree not to encourage work stoppages against the employer.

New Jersey and California have required labor peace agreements for licensed companies in their marijuana markets. Illinois law says such agreements boost an applicant’s likelihood of winning a license.

Encouraging organized labor, unions say, will help New York keep its pledge to create a marijuana market that addresses the harms of the decades-long war on drugs.

“The Legislature listened to calls by workers and advocates to create an industry centered on equity,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement following the bill’s passage. “From the creation of a social-equity fund to requiring labor peace for cannabis license holders, this places New York on the forefront of social equity nationally.”

Labor peace agreements are already required for companies in New York’s medical marijuana market, created in 2014 through the Compassionate Care Act. 

Growing opportunity

A little more than one-fifth of all New York workers are represented by a union, according to Census Bureau data, the second-highest rate in the nation behind Hawaii. But union ranks have been on the decline for the past three years, particularly in the private sector.

In the six years the medical-marijuana market has been active, Local 338 has negotiated contracts for about 500 employees at six of the 10 licensed cannabis companies in New York. The RWDSU is affiliated with the 1.3 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers union, which says it represents tens of thousands of cannabis workers across the country.

Cresco Labs, which reached the deal with Local 338 last week, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Overdrive

Labor peace agreements are not exclusive to the marijuana market. They have been around for years in telecommunications, hospitality and other industries. It is unusual, however, for a labor agreement to be mandated by the state, said Marvin Weinberg, a partner at law firm Fox Rothschild who represents employers.

The setup creates leverage for unions to negotiate terms friendly to them in the deal.

“It is essentially a quid pro quo or two-way street, though I think it is a street that tilts in favor of the union,” Weinberg said.

In a Cannabis Business Executive column, Weinberg noted that labor peace agreements could be pre-empted by the National Labor Relations Act, “but thus far there have not been any successful court challenges.”

Unionization efforts in the cannabis industry have kicked into overdrive since October, said employer law firm Seyfarth Shaw. Workers at 10 separate facilities have voted to unionize since then in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Illinois, California and the District of Columbia.

With the assumed labor-friendly approach from the Biden administration, attempts at unionization in the cannabis industry are only expected to increase,” wrote Ethan Goemann, an associate at the firm.

Level playing field

Tyler Curtis, a wellness adviser at Sunnyside in Williamsburg, said beyond the financial benefits of the contract, he hopes unionizing can bring more training opportunities and ways to advance in the industry. The 26-year-old said he would like to open his own business in the marijuana industry down the road.

“It’s about making this a fair playing field for all involved,” Curtis said. “Having a unionized movement and an expanded adult-use market will create a legitimized industry.”

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