The Cannabis Industry is Growing, And Worker Protections Must Grow With It (Op-Ed)

“Unionizing, without fear of retaliation or union-busting tactics, is one of the only ways in which cannabis workers can directly ensure their voices are heard on the job.”

By Ademola Oyefeso, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union

As states across the country legalize cannabis, Americans are confronted with the rare and remarkable opportunity to shape an industry that is still in its infancy.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of testifying before the Senate to advocate for the thousands of cannabis workers that the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) represents across the country. In my testimony, I outlined the financial instability and literal danger that cannabis workers across the country face, issues that our elected leaders can and should fix as we shape the landscape for this new and emerging industry.

Two decades ago, when the UFCW first began advocating for cannabis workers, testifying about legal cannabis before the Senate was not something many people imagined we could do. Thankfully, years of laying down the groundwork has brought us here.

The UFCW has played a central role in legalization movements in nearly every state across the country, advocating for labor protections and the needs of cannabis industry workers while working with employers and state legislatures to establish the building blocks and relationships needed for a successful and equitable industry. In early 2010 we first dove into the world of cannabis organizing, and after two decades of laying the political and organizational groundwork, we are now seeing this industry grow to become an economic powerhouse with workers at the wheel.

Our union now represents more than ten thousand cannabis workers in more than 22 states, including Washington, D.C., who work in every portion of the industry, from seed to sale. At the core of our cannabis efforts is our commitment to shaping an industry that provides equity in the form of safe, well-paid and family-sustaining jobs that empower all cannabis workers.

The unfortunate truth is that because cannabis is not federally legalized, workers in this industry face the unique challenge of a federal prohibition on access to legal banking.

This has far reaching ramifications for cannabis workers, the first being the large amounts of cash that cannabis businesses are forced to keep on site. This places a target on the backs of cannabis workers, putting them at risk of physical danger.

The second major issue at hand is the lack of financial security and stability for many cannabis workers. Many employees are working without access to payroll services or pay stubs and are unable to show proof of employment for apartment rentals or home and auto loans. There is no reason for employees working in a legal industry to be treated like criminals working in an underground market.

Access to traditional banking services means economic security, physical security, peace of mind and the ability to plan and build a better life. This is why the UFCW is committed to advocating for key cannabis legislation such as the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow cannabis workers and employers access to legal banking services. As states begin to shape the cannabis industry, we must call on our elected leaders to use this unique opportunity to create an industry with robust, equitable and consistent worker protections built into it.

While working with employers, operators and legislators to uplift cannabis workers has been largely successful, the UFCW refuses to stop there. Unionizing, without fear of retaliation or union-busting tactics, is one of the only ways in which cannabis workers can directly ensure their voices are heard on the job.

Unfortunately, many cannabis cultivators are unable to unionize because they may be considered agricultural workers by the National Labor Relations Board. This would mean they are not guaranteed the right to unionize and collectively bargain, as other workers are guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act.

In order to ensure that all cannabis workers, from seed to sale, can unionize and bargain for a better life at work, additional protections need to be passed at the state level. We must take this opportunity to not only advocate for legislation that will protect and empower workers, but also empower cannabis workers to freely unionize their workplaces.

When businesses and legislation fall short, the UFCW is there to ensure that workers’ voices are heard and that protections are being enforced. Establishing a labor friendly cannabis industry from the start is one of the most effective ways of uplifting cannabis workers.

It is up to all Americans to call on our elected leaders to sponsor and pass key legislation that uplifts cannabis workers. In the meantime, as America’s cannabis union, the UFCW will continue fighting, as we have for the last two decades, to organize, empower and protect our nation’s cannabis workers.

Ademola Oyefeso is director of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union’s Legislative and Political Action Department.

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