With the cannabis industry’s growth into a multi-billion dollar industry, employing about 321,000 individuals, comes the intensification of focus from unions viewing the industry as a large growth opportunity.  Much of the union organizing to date has been led by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which launched a cannabis organizing campaign in 2011.

Since October 2020, efforts to unionize workers in the cannabis industry kicked into overdrive.  Ten cannabis facility workers voted to unionize in those five months throughout the country in Rhode Island, California, DC, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Illinois.

This past month in Chicago, 40 employees at Sunnyside Cannabis Dispensary in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood became the first dispensary workers in Illinois to ratify a union contract. Additionally the state’s first cannabis union contract was ratified in December by more than 180 workers at the Cresco Labs cultivation center in Joliet.

Also in February, in Denver, workers at TweedLeaf’s cultivation warehouse asked the NLRB to recognize their union certification vote with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco, and Grain Millers Union Local 26 chapter.  This would be Colorado’s first marijuana workers’ union.

One possible cause of the increase in unionization efforts could be the COVID-19 pandemic.  A dispensary employee in Massachusetts told Marijuana Business Daily that workers want more input in company decisions concerning the response to the elevated risk levels associated with working during the pandemic.  And a TweedLeaf employee in Colorado told Westword that they have “a lot of safety issues” including running out of PPE.

Another factor could be that cannabis is a new, emerging industry without much history in union membership.  Only about 1% of Illinois’ cannabis workers are members of a union, while overall 14.3% of workers in Illinois are union members.  Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told the Chicago Tribune that this could be the start of a surge in union membership, comparing the state of cannabis unionization to the auto industry after the United Auto Workers signed its first labor contract in 1937.  Once the employees in the cannabis industry see successful unionization efforts throughout the country, this could have a cascading effect.

With the assumed labor-friendly approach from the Biden administration, attempts at unionization in the cannabis industry are only expected to increase.  Employers should listen for possible unionization efforts in their workplace and consult with counsel on maintaining a union-free work environment.