Is Marijuana Union Battle Budding?

Categories: Labor, Marijuana

Meanwhile, over at the pot dispensary...
Don't smoke that! Get a union man to smoke that!

San Francisco is a famous union town, a reputation won on the docks. But this isn't the 1930s, and "budtenders" at cannabis dispensaries aren't the spitting image of striking longshoremen. Still, organizers with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 -- which unionized about 100 workers at Oaksterdam University in May - are at this moment actively recruiting new members in San Francisco, and are looking to add cannabis cultivators as well as sellers to its ranks.

"The medical cannabis industry is a retail, agricultural and food processing industry, and Local 5 is a retail, agricultural and food-processing union," said Local 5 organizer Dan Rush, who made this pitch to the city's patients and advocates at the Nov. 19 meeting of the Medical Cannabis Task Force at City Hall. "Local 5 is determined to bring dignity to the cannabis industry."

This all sounds well and good, but dispensary owners - or workers - don't appear to be breaking down Rush's door in an effort to get their union cards. One Task Force member present for Rush's appearance characterized the reaction as "indifferent."

One reason could be that dispensary workers in San Francisco are, on the whole, well-treated: Pay reportedly starts at around $17 an hour with benefits for most budtenders. Vacancies at dispensaries don't last long. Still, there are stories of disabled, wheelchair-bound dispensary workers losing their jobs in the East Bay, only to replaced with "Playboy bunnies - bud bunnies," as Shona Gochenaur, den mother of patient-advocacy group Axis of Love, put it. "Disabled people lost their jobs because they weren't cover girls. ... I believe our workers need to be unionized. We need fair labor practices - that is a no-brainer."

A more effective sell than workers' rights could be public safety. San Francisco may be a union town, but it's a union town that's none too pleased with clandestine home grow operations -- which, we're told, proliferate on the city's west side. Unionization would promote rules as well as standards and practices, and, ergo "relieve the community of unsafe, potentially faulty practices like we're seeing now," Rush said. "Many people are growing in their bedrooms and garages. They're not employing people, they're using people - and that stuff has to stop."

Exactly how an organized, active medical cannabis community would play into the San Francisco political scene is unclear. Rush's pitch was news to Supervisor David Campos, who wrote the legislation creating the Task Force. "But [unionizing] makes sense," Campos told SF Weekly. "This is an industry with a potential for a lot of growth. I imagine it's something people would explore."

Thumbnail image for Cheech_Chong-small.jpg
Your shop stewards...
​It also stands to reason that city officials wouldn't actively strip a permit from a pot dispensary -- as they did earlier this month -- if subjected to union pushback.

Labor experts among us will point out that there's another UFCW Local in San Francisco: Local 648. The two shops' respective presidents, Ron Lind and Mike Sharpe, "are forging a unified approach to the San Francisco medical cannabis industry with Local 648" involved, Rush said. "That [work] is above my pay grade! But, in the meantime, I'm laying the groundwork."

Rush and UFCW's Local 5 have yet to reach out to Campos or Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who wrote the city's medical cannabis laws. But Mirkarimi has called for city permitting and licensing of large-scale industrial grows, like the ones seen in Oakland. Who helped write the laws for those grows, which will earn Oakland $211,000 a year each in guaranteed permitting revenue? None other than Rush and Local 5.

So, yes - medical cannabis grown in San Francisco could someday soon sport a "union-made" label as well as indica/sativa or indoor/outdoor.

"The industry is alive and well - and it's awakening," Rush said. "It's awakening, and coming together."

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