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Only a few cannabis workers in Illinois are unionized 2 years after full legalization. Organizers say corporate owners have put up fierce resistance.

“A lot of people running the industry don’t really seem to care about even just the culture and the benefits of cannabis, let alone their employees’ wellbeing,” said a budtender at Curaleaf’s Weed Street dispensary in Goose Island.

Jake Lytle, a who works at Windy City Cannabis, helped unionize workers at the dispensary.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Cannabis workers pushing to unionize amid complaints of low wages and rough working conditions claim they’ve faced stiff resistance from the corporate pot firms that employ them.

In January of 2020, with the blessing of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, employees at Cresco Labs’ cultivation center in Joliet voted to become the first Illinois cannabis workers to unionize, joining United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881.

But the historic vote held within weeks of marijuana being fully legalized in Illinois came after the National Labor Relations Board sided with Cresco and exempted the site’s growers from the vote, deeming them agricultural workers and thus prohibiting them from joining a union under federal law.

A source familiar with the process claimed Cresco’s move to cut out a large chunk of the workers served as “the beginning of union-busting attempts in Illinois.” A Cresco spokesman, however, said the company merely wanted the law to be followed.

Employees at 11 Illinois dispensaries have since voted to join either UFCW Local 881 or Teamsters Local 777, though one election is being contested and formal allegations of retaliation have been levied in relation to another. Some efforts have fallen short and others are ongoing, but only two contracts have so far been ratified — one for the workers in Joliet and another for employees at Cresco’s Sunnyside dispensary in Lake View.

NLRB records show Cresco and the three other companies that currently operate unionized cannabis businesses — PharmaCann, Ascend Wellness Holdings and Curaleaf — have all retained high-powered law firms to handle labor issues, many of which are experts in so-called union avoidance. All four companies grow and sell weed across multiple states and have significant footprints in Illinois.

Employees at three unionized dispensaries separately complained of demanding workloads, a lack of job security and the glaring economic disparity between cannabis workers and their bosses. Budtenders at two of the four unionized Curaleaf dispensaries specifically bemoaned making around $16 an hour and learning Curaleaf’s billionaire founder Boris Jordan bought a $14 million mansion in Florida last year.

“They’re rolling in the money at the top and they’re not giving us any scraps,” said Patrick Vinson, who works at Curaleaf in Mokena.

Patrick Vinson (third from left) and other workers from the Curaleaf dispensary celebrate their vote to joinUnited Food and Commercial Workers Local 881 on Nov. 2, 2021.
Provided/Patrick Vinson

All three workers also said they felt some form of pushback from their employers’ over their respective unionizing efforts.

Vinson and the other Curaleaf employee, Jake Lytle, both complained they were subjected to meetings with managers and consultants in which they were discouraged from joining UFCW’s local. They also claimed that co-workers were moved into managerial roles in an apparent bid to lower the number of workers who could vote. Then after their votes, they were allegedly told that non-union employees were being offered a raise that couldn’t be extended to them.

Jordon Rahmil, a Curaleaf spokeswoman, didn’t respond to questions about some of those claims but said the company hired consultants “to ensure the team members were educated on the facts of unionization to make an informed decision during the voting process.”

She added: “While we believe we offer competitive compensation and benefits, a flexible work environment and positive working relationships where team members would not feel there is a need for union representation, we respect the voices of our team members and will meet our legal obligation to negotiate with UFCW in good faith.”

A series of unfair labor practices charges

In some cases, though, anti-union efforts have allegedly been more overt than the “forced sit-downs” Vinson described.

An unfair labor practices charge filed by the Teamsters in October with the NLRB alleges that a “known, strong union supporter” was fired from PharmaCann’s Verilife dispensary in Arlington Heights “in order to discourage her union activities and support for the Union.” Weeks later, a union news release announced that workers at that location and another Verilife store on the Near North Side had voted to join up.

Another charge, filed by the Teamsters in September, holds that PharmaCann CEO Brett Novey “promised benefits in order to discourage union support” in the Arlington Heights election.

The union, which also represents workers at Ascend’s two MOCA dispensaries in Chicago, has also filed charges on behalf of workers at Verilife’s Romeoville store, which is looking to unionize along with employees from the Rosemont and Ottawa locations. Among other things, those charges accuse PharmaCann of firing another employee who “joined or supported a labor organization” and “forcing” employees to work over the holidays “in retaliation for filing for a representation election” and supporting the union.

“These are fights every time we do them,” James Glimco, president of Teamsters Local 777, said of the complaints related to union elections. “We’re doing bottom-up organizing, so we’re working with the workers [and] fighting for their issues. So that’s where we’re getting into the weeds on this stuff.”

Jeremy Unruh, a spokesman for Chicago-based PharmaCann, said the company’s responses will be provided to the NLRB, although records show they haven’t yet been filed. He noted that PharmaCann currently offers its employees “a tremendous workplace package” that includes health insurance, a 401k plan with a matching contribution and other benefits.

“That said, we believe our employees should have the freedom to choose whether to be represented by a union or not,” he said. “If our employees choose to be represented by a union, we will bargain with that union in the best faith.”

Cresco has similarly faced six unfair labor practices charges in Illinois, all of which were withdrawn. Ascend has been the subject of two; one was dropped and the other dismissed, NLRB records show.

Jason Erkes, a spokesman for Cresco, declined to comment on the charges. A spokeswoman for Ascend didn’t respond to an inquiry.

A contested election

Lytle, a product specialist at Curaleaf’s flagship Weed Street location in Goose Island, helped lead the charge when he and his co-workers narrowly voted to join UFCW’s local earlier this year. Now, they’re waiting for a final decision after Curaleaf challenged the results.

“They have a lot of ability to try to delay the vote, so that’s been tough to deal with,” he said.

The uncertainty isn’t unfamiliar. As Lytle and his colleagues were working to organize, they were often unsure who was actually running the shop. At the time, Massachusetts-based Curaleaf was purchasing the store from Windy City Cannabis as part of a larger $830 million deal.

In an Aug. 19 filing with the NLRB, Curaleaf’s attorney from Littler Mendelson — the largest employer-side labor law firm in the country — called for a “re-run election” and raised concerns about the initial vote, which was held by mail and was determined by a single ballot. Such re-run elections aren’t uncommon and the company spokeswoman Rahmil insisted the results were challenged “to ensure that all ballots were counted.”

Meantime, Lytle said he’s been meeting and coordinating with other unionized Curaleaf employees, many of whom are similarly dealing with workplace issues and low morale.

“A lot of people running the industry don’t really seem to care about even just the culture and the benefits of cannabis, let alone their employees’ wellbeing.”

Jake Lytle and Melina Gutierrez, product specialists at the Windy City Cannabis dispensary in Goose Island, held a news conference earlier this year as workers at their shop pushed to join the United Food and Commercial Union’s Local 881.
Tom Schuba/Sun-Times