Organized Labor Flexes Muscle for Medical Marijuana Dispensary
|Whose side are you on?|
San Francisco's reputation as a union town was hard-won on the docks and picket lines of the 1930s. Less violence accompanied the city being known as a haven for pot-smoking freaks, but it took the carnage of the AIDS epidemic for San Francisco to become the Mecca of legal medical marijuana.
With organized labor on the decline in the United States -- 11.4 percent of workers are in unions, down from 13.4 percent in 1999 -- and medical marijuana use and acceptance steadily growing, the two identities might be on opposite trajectories. But they do converge: Labor union United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 began organizing workers at California dispensaries and pot grows in May 2010.
Progress has been slow in San Francisco -- UFCW has yet to organize any of the city's 22 operating pot clubs into union shops. But after its victory Wednesday night, the union may win more converts soon. Strong organized support for Mission Organics -- a union dispensary attempting to open in the city's Excelsior District -- helped the pot club survive a challenge by marijuana-fearing residents at the Board of Appeals.
Mission Organics, whose operators are Southern California natives, is one of three new pot clubs -- including one on the same 5200 block of Mission Street -- approved by the Planning Commission in February. As has happened before in some of the city's outlying residential neighborhoods, local residents upset or fearful by the prospect of a pot club in their neighborhood filed an appeal to have the dispensary's permit revoked.
The appeal was filed by Outer Mission resident Steven Currier, a longtime political hopeful and president of the Outer Mission Merchants and Neighbors Association. But two neighborhood demonstrations against Mission Organics and Green Cross -- which received a permit to open a dispensary on the 4200 block of Mission -- were organized by a union man: District 11 supervisor candidate Leon Chow, who in his day job is external affairs director for healthcare union SEIU-UHW.
Chow and about 40 mostly Chinese-speaking -- we admit to being ill-educated Americans and cannot tell Mandarin from Cantonese -- residents turned up outside of City Hall on Wednesday with signs declaring "Stop Pot Club Permits," the slogans they had handy during an April rally in the neighborhood. But this time, there was a counter-rally: a slightly smaller amount of UFCW union members, representatives from medical cannabis advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, and other marijuana supporters also showed up -- twice, at noon and at 4 p.m.
Both factions packed a fourth-floor City Hall hearing room in which the usual testimony was presented: Pot clubs either cause crime and are neighborhood blights, or pot clubs are vital life-saving access points for those who need medical cannabis to survive -- plus, UFCW members said, cannabis dispensaries create "living wage jobs" for union workers.
Finding no legal basis to act otherwise, the Board of Appeals voted 3-1 to let Mission Organics keep its permit. "There are a number of cultural fears that perhaps need some further education," Board vice-president Frank Fung said.
Fung was the lone dissenting vote, saying he'd vote against dispensaries until the Board of Supervisors amended zoning law to address the "clustering issue" -- a perceived concentration of dispensaries in certain areas of the city seized upon by Currier as a reason to deny the permits. "Three MCDs in a 1.2-mile area is unconscionable," Currier said. "It should not ever have been done ... the merchants are scared."
In late 2010, the Board of Appeals sided with Sunset District neighbors and revoked a licensed dispensary's permit. Chow also helped to organize that opposition, with major assistance from Sunset District Supervisor Carmen Chu.
Before the hearing on Wednesday, Chow said he estimates about 52 percent of the neighborhood is against dispensaries (a figure gleaned by how the neighborhood voted on 2010's marijuana legalization measure Prop. 19). Chow did not return a call for comment on Thursday, but he will be back to protest another day: His name is on the appeal of Green Cross's permit, which will be heard in July.
In the meantime, the decision is "a clear example of what a 21st-century union does for their members," said union organizer Dan Rush, executive director of the UFCW's national medical cannabis and hemp division.
"It's not just about wages and working conditions -- it's about creating a healthy political environment so our members can thrive," Rush said. "Our members are dignified, sincere folks who work in an industry vulnerable to divisive claims. But our collective bargaining agreements prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that our members are to be taken seriously, rather than be shoved aside."
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