Unions High On Organizing Pot Workers

Feb 21, 2013

Photo: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its annual report on union membership, which has been on a 50 plus year downward trend as this blog reported at the time. In response to this ongoing decline, many unions have pursued some interesting tactics to recruit new members and keep themselves alive. 

For example, the once-indomitable United Auto Workers (UAW), which had around 1.5 million members in the 1970s compared to its 380,000 today, has branched into industries that have nothing to do with auto work, such as education, gaming, health care, and government, to stave off further losses.  Other unions have started branching out in similar ways, which to say the least has blurred the lines between union “jurisdictions” that historically have been important to the movement. 

Likewise, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) also has reached into various industries beyond its traditional jurisdiction, and it now represents employees working in disparate fields such as health care, meatpacking, and textiles.  A recent Reuters article explains that UFCW leaders also have been expanding the union’s ties to the medical marijuana industry because they expect that industry to bloom. Thanks to increasing efforts to legalize the drug in various states, efforts the UFCW has actively supported for the last few years, the union hopes to organize a bumper crop of marijuana workers to add to its increasingly diverse cast of members. 

With states like California and Colorado having passed measures to legalize pot, some analysts believe that the medical marijuana industry could grow to a staggering $8.9 billion in just the next few years. For the UFCW, that means as many as 100,000 potential new members who could feed the union’s addiction to coerced dues money, while the marijuana dispensaries could ostensibly gain some legitimacy for peddling their wares by associating with the institution of organized labor.   

In addition to supporting efforts to legalize pot, the UFCW also wants to engage in some old-fashioned market manipulation as well. With an estimated 900 marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles alone, UFCW Local 770 is promoting a ballot initiative that would cut that number back to 130, including, of course, the 50 or so that are already unionized. As the article points out, if the measure succeeds, “it would put most of those dispensaries out of business – and could make the UFCW a dominant player” in the pot industry.  Perhaps that is what one UFCW official had in mind when he said, “The marriage of the cannabis-hemp industry and UFCW is a natural one.” 

Observers of labor policy are well aware that unions spend tens of millions of dollars to shape public policy to their advantage, and promoting ballot measures to legalize what the Drug Enforcement Administration classifies as a Schedule 1 narcotic is but one more example, albeit one more cynical than most. 

Apparently, when it comes to narcotics and dues money, the UFCW has a hard time just saying “no.”

This post first appeared on the Workforce Freedom Inititiative blog

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