Is the Unionized Landscape of Legalized Marijuana in California Heading East?

The legalization of recreational pot in California has caused unions to scramble for influence in the industry which is projected to top $7 billion in sales in California alone by 2020. In an effort to get ahead of competition, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union has implemented a “bud tenders” apprenticeship program, similar to its apprenticeship programs for meat cutters, at a local college. But the college’s plan to funnel mostly dues-paying members into the program raised the eyebrows of its would-be partner, Oaksterdam University, which wants the training to be for all cannabis entrepreneurs regardless of union status.

Dale Sky Jones, executive chancellor of Oaksterdam, the Oakland, California marijuana trade school, said this illuminates a larger question among growers, retailers, and distributors: Will unionization ruin the buzz?

The cannabis industry has traditionally been very sensitive to workers’ rights, and the people who have been working in cannabis tend to be happy. They are not oppressed workers. So the question is, if the workers don’t need representation against management, then what are they getting for their union dues?

The UFCW carries weight in the pot industry because it was the first to organize marijuana workers in California and was heavily involved in the failed 2010 campaign for Proposition 19, the California’s first attempt to make recreational pot legal.

Oaksterdam University worked closely with the union from the beginning, fighting alongside UFCW representatives when the federal government raided dispensaries. Jones credited the union, which now has more than 1,200 card-carrying dispensary workers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland, and San Jose, with legitimizing the movement in the minds of lawmakers.

The UFCW negotiated labor neutrality provisions into both the medical and recreational marijuana laws – meaning any farm, dispensary, or shop with 20 or more employees must allow workers to meet with the union and organize if the workers want to do so.

The apprenticeship program is a new twist in the relationship between the UFCW and the industry because it seeks to not only organize existing businesses but groom a workforce that would be union-oriented from the start.

According to one pro-union activist, “if a cannabis retailer wants to be a traditional mainstream business, they need to be able to provide employees with benefits – retirement programs, access to health and welfare and skills training programs.” She continued, “There are people in this business who are happy to work with us, and there are people in it who are angry to have to work with us, but the industry is going to have to contend with labor around cannabis.”

Ohio legalized medical marijuana last year. Within a few years, the problems facing California farms, warehouses, and dispensaries will face Ohio’s marijuana farms, warehouses, and dispensaries. By then, though, more unions will be better skilled at organizing and representing workers than they are now which means union avoidance strategies and strong labor relations should be at the forefront of Ohio companies beginning to operate in the marijuana industry.

Matt Austin owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm based in Ohio that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. You can call Matt at (614) 285-5342 or email him at