The alliance of the cannabis industry and organized labor has reflected the parties’ complementary interests.
The alliance of the cannabis industry and organized labor has reflected the parties’ complementary interests.
Gustavo Turner

How Unions Got Into L.A.'s Marijuana Business

In 2012, the L.A. cannabis industry needed friends. The Obama administration had not yet signaled a truce with state legal businesses, so federal agents raided dispensaries and dozens more received letters that they were violating federal law. Hundreds of unregulated shops had popped up in the city. No states had legalized recreational use and the idea that the industry could function remained an untested idea in this country. 

Long before the so-called Green Rush today, where businesses are flocking to invest in marijuana, five years ago, corporate America and other mainstream organizations stayed away from legal weed. But one organization was willing to get involved: the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. 

Rigo Valdez Jr., director of organizing at Local 770, which represents grocery and pharmacy workers, says the union saw an opportunity. “If your job is dispensing medical cannabis, your job is not that different from a pharmacy tech,” he says. 

From the beginning, the alliance of the cannabis industry and organized labor has reflected the parties’ complementary interests: Cannabis gained legitimacy and unions could start a tradition of organizing workers in a quickly growing industry. Valdez compares it to the repeal of Prohibition, which led to an alcohol industry that he says is still highly unionized. 

In 2012, employees of Cornerstone Collective joined the union. “We saw it as a very positive relationship and still do,” Carlos de la Torre, president of Cornerstone, says. “They've been in our industry's corner since then.”        

At the time, Torre says, L.A. City Council and residents were “fed up with the proliferation of the industry.” Pot shops were sprouting up everywhere. The union collaborated with cannabis collectives on the measure that became Proposition D, which city voters approved in May 2013. Proposition D limited the number of dispensaries in the city to 135 — dispensaries that had been approved by a 2007 ordinance — and raised taxes for sellers. 

Proposition D stabilized the industry by creating a distinction between sanctioned and unsanctioned dispensaries, and the union has thrived within it. Workers have organized at 26 dispensaries in the city, in shops ranging from 10 to about 45 employees. (It doesn’t work with businesses that have fewer than 10 employees, Valdez says.) 

The union also has organized cannabis workers in San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland and San Jose, though it represents only permitted businesses and those that have a “pathway” to legal status. 

This benefits L.A. Collectives such as Cornerstone. Despite Proposition D, and subsequent efforts, hundreds of noncompliant dispensaries continue to operate in L.A. This forces dispensaries such as Cornerstone to compete with businesses that are not necessarily spending as much on taxes, labor and other fees. The union has “gone to the mat for us with respect to leveling the playing field,” De la Torre says.

Valdez agrees that the current system punishes businesses that try to play by the rules. “If Prop D had done what it was supposed to do and there were only 135 dispensaries no one would care about paying the high taxes,” he said. “The problem is that there are 135 dispensaries trying to play by the rules and 500 others that are untouchable.”

Cornerstone is now in step with Local 770 in support of Measure M, which city residents will vote on March 7. If passed, the measure will allow the City Council and mayor to create a more regulated industry in the city. 

At the same time, the federal government is re-emerging as a threat to state-legal cannabis businesses. Jeff Sessions, the prohibitionist Republican senator who just became U.S. Attorney General, has refused to acknowledge the cannabis industry’s right to operate, even in states that have legalized.

While no one knows what will happen, it is “very likely that Sessions will go after marijuana,” Valdez says.   

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