Rigo Valdez is one of the good guys in the burgeoning California cannabis business yet he’s never sold a joint.

Part of Valdez’s job as vice president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770 is to make sure marijuana dispensary and collective workers get what they deserve, like a living wage, in cash and not in cannabis.

On Thursday, June 14, Valdez and his union received the Ethical Emerging Industry Award, honoring them as trailblazers in their commitment to workers, from the watchdog group Labor 411 at the inaugural Blue Tie Gala, held at the W Hotel in Hollywood.

Valdez was instrumental in helping to strengthen the rights of dispensary workers and in working for marijuana legalization, Labor 411 leaders and others said. “One of my favorite unions is Local 770,” City Councilman Paul Koretz said at the ceremony. “770 was in the forefront of taking cannabis out of the shadows. I’m sure there would not be legal cannabis in Los Angeles without 770.”

Labor 411 also gave an Ethical Business Award to Kaiser Permanente, where every employee is a union member.

The Blue Tie Gala was a celebration of Labor 411’s campaign of Buying Blue. Labor 411 prints directories that list businesses that offer employees good pay and benefits. The directories empower consumers to shop at stores where owners understand the importance of treating employees fairly, publisher Cherri Senders said.

Rigo Valdez receives award from Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz; Credit: Joanne Kim

Rigo Valdez receives award from Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz; Credit: Joanne Kim

Local 770 latched on to the idea of helping dispensary workers in 2012 after Los Angeles City Council members Jose Huizar and Mitchell Englander lobbied to end all pot sales because of the proliferation of illegal shops in the city, Koretz said. That meant hundreds of dispensary workers would lose their jobs, not to mention the inconvenience to medical marijuana patients who would be forced to the black market.

Koretz, late councilman Bill Rosendahl and Local 770 pushed back. After Koretz and Rosendahl said it was a time for a meeting of the minds, Valdez called together everyone who had a stake in the cannabis industry and convinced dispensary owners to agree to become better neighbors. Among their ideas: no dispensaries within 600 feet of a church, school, park or another dispensary.

At Local 770’s insistence, city attorney Mike Feuer and his enforcement team closed illegal shops along Pico Boulevard, once known as the Green Mile because of the concentration of dispensaries, Koretz and Labor 411 leaders said. Local 770 and Valdez also drove the idea to clear dispensaries from the Venice Boardwalk, which forced them to move to Lincoln Avenue and Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

The end result of Local 770’s activism was Proposition D, approved by voters who wanted rules governing dispensaries and collectives, Labor 411 leaders said. In turn, that prompted Local 770 to petition the state to create medical cannabis regulations to ensure patient protections as well as protections for workers who dispense cannabis.

State law gives dispensary and collective workers the right to unionize as a result of that push, they said.

“We wanted good regulations, which would make for good employers to their employees,” Valdez said. “A lot of folks have been working in the shadows for years. We didn’t want those workers left behind.”

“A lot of folks have been working in the shadows for years. We didn’t want those workers left behind.” —Rigo Valdez

Local 770 was also a key backer of Proposition 64, which made cannabis legal in California. “California has a chance to become the world leader in the world’s largest cannabis market,” Valdez said. “And we had a hand in that and I’m proud of that.”

At the Blue Tie Gala, L.A. Wonderland Dispensary budtenders Jonathan Fabro and David Nova said they found security and discovered their rights when they joined Local 770. “We have more than just our voice now,” Nova said. “Without Local 770, there was no power. We had no rights. Now there’s job stability. I can take a vacation without worrying about losing my job.”

Same for Fabro, who said he’s worked in both union and non-union shops. “The union represents us in times of need,” he said. “They’re like a big brother who has your back. Being part of 770, there’s more fairness and oversight at work. It’s a more trustworthy place to work.”

Labor 411’s Senders said Local 770 and Kaiser Permanente are examples of two of the fastest-growing job providers in Los Angeles and nationally — health care and the legal cannabis industry. “Organizations like Kaiser Permanente and UFCW make a significant impact by helping to create good jobs that help strengthen the middle class,” she said.

Koretz lauded Kaiser Permanente as an example of a large employer that takes care of its people, “which has become the exception, not the rule.” Kaiser’s commitment to minorities and women is clear, Koretz told the approximately 200 people at the Blue Tie affair.

Minorities make up 60 percent of Kaiser’s workforce, which is 73 percent female. There are 122,000 employees across the Kaiser Foundation system.

Kaiser Permanente labor and trust vice president Chris Blass said it’s all about commitment to the community and to Kaiser’s employees. “Our history is intertwined with labor unions,” Blass said. “We look at health care as a right.”

LA Weekly