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Illinois Cannabis Workers Seek Unionization As Corporations Move Into Industry

CHICAGO, Ill.—Eric Craddock, 36, had to do a Google search to learn about labor unions.

Craddock thought he’d landed his dream job when he got hired by the Ascend Cannabis Dispensary in Springfield, Illinois, when it opened last March. He worked mostly in the basement vault, handling inventory, and was thrilled to be making a living with “this thing we always shouted should be legal.” He says he’s never been as close with his coworkers at any other job.

But the way he was treated soured that dream. When he had to have emergency surgery and was out for three weeks, management refused to give him any paid sick days, he says. The company was secretive about workers being infected with the COVID-19 virus. The last straw came the Monday before Thanksgiving, when the store’s workers were abruptly informed that it would be an unpaid day off, not a paid holiday. Management has also gradually shaved their hours, from about 36 or 37 a week to 30 — a significant loss when most are paid $15 an hour.

“It’s a multimillion-dollar corporation, and they’re cutting my shift by 15 minutes,” Craddock says. “That’s four dollars.”

His Google search led him to United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881, which has been organizing workers in the Illinois cannabis industry since the state legalized sales to adults for nonmedical use in January 2020. He and a coworker, Jon Calvin, got two-thirds of the 41 workers to sign union cards within two weeks.

Workers at Cresco’s Sunnyside Cannabis Dispensary in Chicago voted to join Local 881 last June, and are awaiting their first contract proposal. In December, workers at the Cresco Labs cultivation center in Joliet ratified their first union contract. At Windy City Cannabis, also in Chicago, ballots for the union vote will go out Feb. 25, and will be counted Mar. 22. The Ascend workers in Springfield are waiting for the National Labor Relations Board to schedule an election.

“The conditions are very similar,” says Local 881 organizing director Moises Zavala. “The employees like what they do, but they do not feel that the companies are treating them like the professionals they are.”

Corporations move in

The Illinois union campaign is coming up against the increasing corporate domination of the cannabis industry, as it expands rapidly and becomes less legally risky. Cultivation and sale of marijuana are still serious felonies under federal law, but adult use is on its way to being legal in 15 states plus Washington, DC, and medical use is permitted in 36 states, Washington, and Puerto Rico. The federal government has largely abstained from raiding state-licensed operations since 2012, when Colorado and Washington state voted to legalize sales to all adults, and President Barack Obama realized that he needed to carry Colorado to win re-election.

Legal marijuana remains largely a cash business, however. Under federal law, a cannabis enterprise having a bank account or taking credit cards is considered money laundering. Still, the chains are seeing a very green future, in both the agricultural and financial senses. In Illinois, five to seven chains now own most of the 82 licensed dispensaries, says Jake Lytle, 22, a worker at Windy City Cannabis in Chicago.

California, whose 2016 adult-use law bars large corporations until 2023, has been the biggest exception. Other states have been trying to carve out niches for small farmers and minority-owned businesses, in part as reparations for the people most targeted by prohibition.

In Illinois, the corporate chains are building on their foothold in medical marijuana. Cresco, a Chicago-based wholesaler, now has 15 cultivation facilities and 20 dispensaries in six states under the Sunnyside brand, including 10 in Illinois and four for medical use in New York. ColumbiaCare, which calls itself a “medical-cannabis giant,” is moving into the recreational market; it has dispensaries in nine states and Washington, DC, including one in the Chicago suburbs. MedMen has more than 30 dispensaries in six states, with two in Illinois and four in New York.

Ascend Wellness Holdings, which owns the Springfield dispensary, was established in 2018, and bills itself as “one of the largest privately-held U.S. multistate operators in the cannabis industry.” It owns at least 15 dispensaries, including six in Illinois, and has at least seven more on the way. It says its business model “focuses on limited license states east of the Rockies, with flagship locations in desirable retail corridors serving key medical and adult-use markets.”

Curaleaf, which acquired Windy City Cannabis not long after it opened last July, claims to be the world’s largest marijuana company, with more than 100 dispensaries, 22 cultivation facilities, 30 processing facilities, and more than 1,400 wholesale customers, in 23 states. Last November, it reported a record $193 million in revenue for the third quarter of 2020, up 59% from the second quarter and 164% from 2019. Its gross profits grew at an even faster rate, reaching almost $90 million. Those figures did not include about $20 million in revenues from the newly acquired GrassRoots, the smaller chain that operated Windy City Cannabis.

In Illinois, sales of recreational and medicinal cannabis topped $1 billion in 2020, and recreational sales hit a record $88 million in January 2021, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. With sales and excise taxes as high as 41%, legal pot brought the state almost as much revenue as taxes on alcohol.

“The industry is making millions of dollars,” says Zavala. “Respect does not cost.”

Last month, Nikki Kateman of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union Local 338 told LaborPress that if New York State legalizes adult use of marijuana, jobs in the industry should “have a pathway to unionization” and pay enough to support a family.

The nonunion corporate-chain model, however, is much closer to that of low-wage retail. In Illinois, pay is not much above minimum wage, and “flexible scheduling” means workers find out when their shifts will be as little as two days in advance.

“Nobody knows how many hours they’re supposed to be getting,” says Melina Gutierrez, 29, a dispensing agent and product specialist at Windy City Cannabis in Chicago. Located on the sounds-like-pun-intended Weed Street on the Near North Side — it was part of a smaller chain bought out by industry giant Curaleaf last fall.

Workers at Windy City get $16 an hour, $5 more than the state’s $11 minimum, says product specialist Jake Lytle, but $2 less than the standard for most Chicago cannabis retailers.

At the Ascend Cannabis Dispensary in Springfield, most employees get $15, with $16 for trainers and $17 for “agents in charge,” who handle upset customers and tech issues, according to worker Eric Craddock.

“People are talking about getting part-time jobs and donating plasma,” he says. “I’m supposed to be full time, but I have to wait four days to put gas in my car.”

Craddock, Gutierrez, and Lytle have all been recruiting coworkers to sign up with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881.

“This company should be doing more for us, considering the amount of money we’re bringing in,” says Gutierrez.

A complex job

Cannabis workers in Illinois must be licensed, and the industry is intensely regulated “from seed to sale.” Thus, buying legal marijuana is not like going to a liquor store, picking a bottle of wine or vodka off the shelf, and bringing it up to the cashier. Customers are not allowed into the store until their IDs are scanned to prove they’re 21 or older, explains Lytle. A worker then shows them the menu on an iPad and takes their order, which is brought up from the vault and rung up at the cash register.

One of workers’ main complaints, he adds, is that checking IDs and taking orders are both done outside — speaking on a February day when the temperature in Chicago was about 10°F.

Customer service involves more emotional labor than in a liquor store as well, Gutierrez says. Windy City’s recreational menu has almost 300 products, including standard flowers, vape cartridges, tinctures, ointments, and “edibles,” pot-infused food or candy. Workers thus have to advise customers on the possible effects of different varieties — from medical to what the menu calls “giggle-inducing” — and how to use them correctly.

Proper dosing is most important with edibles, where the effects’ slow onset means a common mistake is eating a second dose before the first one has fully hit. Salespeople have to understand the product, Gutierrez adds, so customers “don’t have to call 911 after eating this chocolate bar.”

Aside from pay and scheduling, Windy City workers say their biggest concern is COVID-19, including safety, cleaning, and getting a definite structure for paid sick leave. When two workers tested positive for the virus in October, says Gutierrez, the staff felt “a very big lack of answers and a lack of urgency” from management.

At the Sunnyside Cannabis Dispensary in Chicago, where workers voted to unionize last June, management had prohibited workers from wearing masks on the job, says Local 881 organizing director Moises Zavala.

Windy City Cannabis workers also want unused space in the storefront converted to a proper break room, says Lytle. But management has instead used that unfinished space, he adds, for captive-audience meetings, showing antiunion PowerPoint presentations about the high cost of dues and that unions are an intrusive outside force.

“Pretty much from the playbook,” says Gutierrez. Some people have had to come in on their days off to attend those meetings, she adds. Some “are getting a little intimidated, but I think we’ll have a majority.”

At the Ascend dispensary in Springfield, Eric Craddock says he hasn’t yet seen an overt anti-union campaign, but union advocate Jon Calvin was suspended Feb. 5, after he gave an interview to a local TV station while out to lunch. Local 881 filed an unfair-labor-practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, and Calvin was reinstated Feb. 8 with back pay and an apology, says Zavala.

A different way?

The cannabis industry was supposed to be different, not dominated by large corporations, says Craddock.

“We’re passionate about cannabis,” he adds. “We want a different system. We want to help people.”

Lytle says the corporate model means that prices for customers are artificially high: $20 for a one-gram package isn’t any cheaper than it would be on the illegal market.

As for workers, “we need to protect ourselves in this new industry,” he continues. “They’re not going to do that unless we have a way to make sure that they do.”

He and his coworkers don’t have vacation days, and health-insurance benefits are limited to full-time employees, he explains. Even if wages and benefits were great, “it could be taken away,” because nothing is in writing. And workers, especially those with children, don’t want “to be fired for no reason. Being at-will sucks.”

“We need to make this job a career,” says Melina Gutierrez, “not just the entry-level jobs they’re paying us for. This is a growing, booming industry. It shouldn’t be a dead-end retail job.”

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