One for the Teamsters 

The question of organizing medical marijuana workers was bound to come up

Good old union-label marijuana.

That notion may seem a bit fantastic. When union members and marijuana come up in the same sentence it's usually embarrassing to the union. But change is in the air along with the marijuana smoke. As the business of medical marijuana burgeons across the country — last week Delaware became the 16th state to legalize medical marijuana — and employs more people, the question of union organizing was bound to be called. Last week, Teamsters Local Council 43 announced that it had answered the call and organized 23 workers at three locations of Michigan's Blue Water Compassion Center through a card check process.

Card check is a fairly uncontentious organizing process in which workers sign cards indicating their union support rather than the traditional election. Employers agree to recognize a union as the representative if more than 50 percent of workers sign cards. At Blue Water, 22 of 23 workers signed cards in support of Teamster representation. They will join the 1.4-million-strong Teamsters union as members of Local 1038.

"They just feel that they would have more clout belonging to the Teamsters union," said Marian Novak, an organizer for Teamsters Joint Council 43. "As far as issues: just job security. That's what everyone is worried about these days."

These days union job security tends to mean seniority rules when it comes to layoffs and due process when it comes to firing workers.

The idea of union marijuana workers sounds like the kind of thing that could only happen in California. Not surprisingly, it has happened there. The Teamsters already represent a handful of marijuana workers in Oakland and the United Food and Commercial Workers union represents some too. There has been something of a gentleman's agreement there wherein Teamsters organize among production workers and UFCW works with retail workers.

Maybe their theme could be "Henry" the old Riders of the Purple Sage song about a fellow driving a truckload of marijuana in from Acapulco. But these new California Teamsters aren't truck drivers. They're growers, trimmers and cloners. Cloning is the process whereby a branch cut from a plant grows roots and makes a genetically identical copy of the original plant. Trimmers cut the marijuana leaf from around the THC-rich bud that provides the most powerful marijuana effects.

Blue Water's three locations are in Kimball, Lexington Heights and Richville in Michigan's thumb area. It's not clear exactly what kinds of jobs workers at Blue Water do, but the Teamsters press release said that they provide "support" for their customers. When I called the Kimball location, the person who answered the telephone declined an interview, but he did say that "we understand" the wide impact that organizing could have in the marijuana industry. "The Teamsters have always been into wide-scale organizing, willing to go across jurisdictional lines," says John Beck, director of Labor Education at Michigan State University. "When they see opportunity to organize, they organize. All unions now have to be more broad-based to survive, and the Teamsters were there before anybody else was willing to be there."

There don't seem to have been any particularly heated issues at Blue Water. Some of the workers there were formerly union members at previous jobs and believe in the benefits of working under a union contract. And I have to think some of their clients are union members too. So far they haven't negotiated a contract, but if Oakland is the model, it will include health insurance and pension benefits. Hmm ... so far insurance companies don't cover the cost of medical marijuana, but could that change if it's your in-house pharmaceutical?

Another question that comes to my mind is what, if any, impact union membership might have made in the Oakland County dispensary busts that took place last August and are currently in pretrial limbo. First of all, a union shop would want to run according to the letter of the law. I am not saying the Oakland County locations were not following the law. All of the marijuana advocate organizations urge medical marijuana facilities to strictly follow the law, and a union would be expected to put work rules in writing that keep its members safely inside of what is legally allowed.

Of course, with a sheriff's department making fake identification cards and obviously out to entrap you, having those rules might not have made a difference. But Lou Marchetti, a business agent for Teamsters Local 70 in Oakland, Calif., points out another way union membership could have made a difference in such a situation.

"We would try to work politically," he says. "We would use our political influence to find out what they were planning and say to our members, 'Hey, this is what they're doing.'"

Marchetti means the union would use its political contacts to understand how law enforcement was going to interpret the law and what was and wasn't going to be tolerated.

And if the busts went down anyway, Novak says: "We do everything to protect our members. That's what the Teamsters are about, and we would take appropriate action for our membership."

So consider the tactic of sending people wearing clothing with medical marijuana emblems and slogans to courthouse entrances on days of hearings for marijuana defendants. This tactic is to let potential jurors know that the defendant is a medical marijuana patient or caregiver in cases where the judge has ruled that the medical marijuana defense cannot be used. Now imagine several hundred Teamsters joining the demonstration. There is power in numbers.

Owners of marijuana-related facilities could fight organizing among its workers, or they could embrace it and see the union as partners in getting the industry established. Almost everything gets bigger when a 1.4 million strong organization gets behind you. Not to mention the customer base. I hear some of those Teamsters have severe back pain from lifting heavy packages.

All the toking Teamster jokes aside, and the shaky nature of a new industry, it came down to basics for Marchetti: "They're workers. They're working at a place and haven't been busted. They're working within the existing laws in California. They approached us about organizing. We organized them and got a contract."

That's pretty straightforward. I'm guessing that we'll see more union organizing in the world of marijuana — from producers of equipment (lights, hydroponic systems) to growers and retail sales. It's a mostly place-specific industry. There are only 16 states where medical marijuana is legal so it would be difficult to pack up and move elsewhere with your business. And I don't think they're allowing truckloads of the substance across state lines.

Maybe the old International Ladies Garment Workers Union anthem will be appropriate and medical marijuana patients will be able to "look for the union label" when purchasing their medication.

More by Larry Gabriel

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