Cannabis worker Arianna Olson, who started as a budtender and was promoted to an agent-in-charge at Zen Leaf in Pilsen.

Cannabis worker Arianna Olson started as a budtender and was promoted to an agent-in-charge at Zen Leaf in Pilsen. She said she previously was in dead-end retail jobs and hopes that, with unionization, she would fare better in the cannabis industry.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Illinois’ weed workers pushing to unionize, seeking higher pay, better safety

Three years after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation legalizing recreational marijuana, Illinois cannabis workers have had 30 unionization elections, winning 88% of them.

The smash-and-grab attempt came as little surprise to employees of Windy City Cannabis in Posen. They had been worrying about safety for months.

When a masked driver backed a sedan with stolen plates through the garage delivery door, forcing the store to close for several days for repairs, employees said they thought, “Of course.” They’d already formed a union to help fight for safety protections.

Tammee Miles, a budtender, said staff members had had problems with abusive or harassing customers. Then, after an armed man robbed a customer outside the store in September, she emailed the organizing director of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881.

“It’s time to unionize,” Miles said.

She and her co-workers are among roughly 17,000 people in Illinois and half a million nationwide who work in the marijuana industry, described as the fastest-growing business in the country. It’s also one of the fastest-unionizing industries, with workers galvanized by safety concerns, working conditions and pay.

In Illinois, legal recreational marijuana sales began on New Year’s Day in 2020. Unionizing efforts quickly followed.

In Illinois, legal recreational marijuana sales began on New Year’s Day in 2020. Unionizing efforts quickly followed.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

This surge in union election victories in the cannabis industry offers hope for organized labor, which has seen its ranks decline over the past half century, from a high of 35% of workers in 1954 to 12% today.

Most of the unionized workforce today is in government, which is one reason why recent union campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks have captured he public’s attention.

But those efforts can’t touch cannabis organizing when it comes to wins and signed contracts.

Three years after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation legalizing recreational marijuana, Illinois cannabis workers have had 30 unionization elections, winning 88% of them — a far better track records than the 61% of elections won by unions across the country in 2021.

“I’m 27 years old, and I’m tired of working jobs that feel like a dead end,” said Cyndi Kazmirzak, another Windy City budtender. “I want a career. Then, I get here, and I feel like I’m working at the ‘McDonald’s of weed,’ getting treated like a teenager. I, for one, am not going to go down without a fight.”

Cyndi Kazmirzak, who is a budtender at Windy City Cannabis in Posen and talks about marijuana on her “Cyndi’s Smoke Circle” podcast. Workers at her shop recently voted 13-0 to unionize.

Cyndi Kazmirzak is a budtender at Windy City Cannabis in Posen and talks about marijuana on her “Cyndi’s Smoke Circle” podcast. Workers at her shop recently voted 13-0 to unionize.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

At the Windy City Cannabis where she works, employees voted 13-0 in November in favor of union representation.

The company did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment.

‘We see that cash’

When Kazmirzak was a fifth-grader in Plainfield, a police officer with the D.A.R.E. program — Drug Abuse Resistance Education — spoke at her school about the evils of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. She then won a medal for an essay she wrote for the school D.A.R.E. contest in which she proclaimed: “It is my life’s purpose to keep myself and my friends free of drugs.”

This year, she started the “Cyndi’s Smoke Circle” podcast, available on Apple and Spotify, in which she speaks with guests about getting high. On the podcast, she says marijuana has helped treat her debilitating depression resulting from traumatic childhood experiences.

She said she believes in the product she sells and wants to help customers navigate the choices.

Illinois is one of the nation’s most lucrative cannabis markets, with about 110 dispensaries grossing $160 million in sales each month. Until recently, it has been growing at a frenetic pace, with another 192 dispensaries and 77 small growers — all licensed under the marijuana legalization law’s social equity provisions — in the pipeline.

Marijuana is still a prohibited drug under federal law, so dispensary customers can’t pay with credit cards.

“We see the cash,” Kazmirzak said. “We know how much they’re making. You’re counting down your personal drawer, and you know how much you’re taking home. It’s a flashing neon sign right in front of you.”

Beyond the cash, there are other factors in unions’ success organizing cannabis workers. The industry is highly regulated, and owners can’t easily pick up and move when organizing efforts start. Also, Illinois’ cannabis legislation contains a “labor peace” provision that encourages employers to be neutral and refrain from engaging in anti-unionization campaigns, though some other states have stronger provisions than Illinois does.

A worker tends to plants at a Cresco cultivation center in Joliet.

Illinois is one of the country’s most lucrative cannabis markets. Here, a worker tends to plants at a Cresco cultivation center in Joliet.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

There’s also a generally favorable labor environment in Illinois, with its relatively large union membership of 800,000 workers backed by a mostly sympathetic public and elected officials, said Robert Bruno, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign labor relations professor.

“The climate overall for union organizing is far better than it’s been in years,” Bruno said.

Also helping organizing efforts is that this is a new industry growing at warp speed. That has led to confusion and sometimes chaos and conflict in stores, workers said, that, along with worker shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, has helped boost interest in unionization.

Among other things, employees have been asking for fair disciplinary policies, promotional ladders, paid time off, reduced health care costs and the ability to collect customer tips. They also want free samples.

Many organizing workers view themselves as working in health care, not just retail, and say they offer expertise as advisers on the finer points of cannabis use.

The starting wage at many dispensaries is just above Chicago’s minimum wage of $15.40 — usually between $15 and $17 an hour, though some stores pay as much as $20 an hour, workers said.

The first successful cannabis workplace unionization vote took place in January 2020 at a cultivation center in Joliet owned by Cresco, a Chicago-based multi-state operator.

Six months later, a Cresco Sunnyside dispensary in Lake View became the first retail site to vote for the same union, Local 881. The employee union at both locations eventually negotiated collective bargaining agreements with Cresco.

Another union, Teamsters Local 777, has won 15 straight elections, signing contracts with a company that owns two Chicago dispensaries.

“We can’t keep up with all the calls,” said Teamsters Local 777 president Jim Glimco, whose union hall in Lyons now has bus drivers mingling with budtenders.

‘Career for people like me’

While unions have a solid winning streak going, they now face the challenging step of negotiating contracts.

Legal cannabis is rolling in cash but not in profits, according to company executives. Cresco and Verano, another Chicago corporation that operates in many states, have seen stock prices plummet by more than 75% from highs in 2021. Even as revenues grow, most companies are still reporting losses every quarter, and several have moved to cut costs, including staff.

Where is the money going? State and local taxes take nearly one-third of sales in Illinois. And most expenses for dispensaries aren’t deductible on federal taxes.

Also, traditional banks won’t handle cannabis money. Each state operation is a separate unit for which the product can’t cross state lines. The cost of borrowing is much higher — and rising interest rates have pushed those costs up further. Cannabis retail operations also have to pay for security guards to protect on-premises cash.

Cresco regional president Melissa Wagamon said that, when she started, the company was managing its inventory using an Excel spreadsheet.

“There are a lot of systems that you would have in place that aren’t in place,” said Wagamon, who previously worked for corporate consumer brands including Miller Lite.

Wagamon and Aaron Miles, Verano’s chief investment officer, said they support employees’ right to form a union but also want their workers to know they can work directly with the company without a union. Wagamon noted that some locations had voted against unionizing. That happened most recently at Verano’s Zen Leaf store in St. Charles.

Arianna Olson, 24, who started as a budtender and was promoted to agent-in-charge at Zen Leaf in Pilsen, said her desire to unionize stems from a history of “dead end after dead end” and “empty promises” in retail. Olson said she has gone into debt to pay bills and that talking of unionizing is common among people in her generation.

“What is the company going to do to make this a career for people like me?” she said.

The union campaigns have spurred executives to open “lines of communication more,” according to Miles, who said, “We’re evolving.”

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