When it returns from recess next week, the Seattle City Council plans to vote on three bills in Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda’s long-awaited cannabis equity package. While the council found agreement on most of the bills, a dispute over two amendments pit Black business groups against labor and split the council along familiar lines.

In response to the disagreement, Councilmember Sara Nelson, with help from Councilmember Alex Pedersen, may bring back a failed amendment to force the council to take a stand on whether it believes unions pose a threat to small business owners.

What Cannabis Equity Looks Like

Mosqueda has spent months working with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) on the cannabis equity policies the union proposed in January. UFCW asked the council to form a commission, expunge cannabis-related criminal records, and impose an “equity tax on weed.” 

Mosqueda took those recommendations and feedback from the City’s cannabis racial equity team, and then championed three bills as a “first step” in response. 

The first part of the package lays out the City’s broad commitments to correcting the racist consequences of the War on Drugs. This includes lobbying the state and federal government for cannabis equity issues in 2023, partnering with existing efforts to expunge pre-2014 cannabis convictions, increasing opportunities for cannabis business ownership, advocating for cannabis workers’ rights, and funding a study the council calls a “Cannabis Needs Assessment,” which could cost $250,000.

The second bill addresses the business ownership component of the first bill. It would establish a citywide “social equity cannabis license,” which would waive the annual fee for eligible business owners.

The third bill helps the workers. In an effort to maintain job security during changes in ownership, the legislation would require outgoing cannabis business owners to give incoming owners a preferential hiring list that the new owner would need to use for a few months. 

The council passed the last two bills without a hitch, but Nelson and Pedersen took issue with one small component of the broad-brushstrokes bill.

The Anxiety of Union Influence

Mosqueda and Nelson disagreed on the kinds of organizations the council should ask the Mayor to choose to conduct the Cannabis Needs Assessment, which would essentially convene a task force to plan future investments in the industry and also game out ways to train a workforce that faces challenges with theft. 

Earlier this month, Mosqueda proposed an amendment to indicate her preference for the City to work with We Train, a “joint labor management initiative” between employers and UFCW Local 3000. The group, which trains grocery workers in “best practices,” has also managed many retail grocery needs assessments, including studies on employee safety.

Even though Mosqueda’s amendment wouldn’t force the Mayor to pick We Train to manage the report, Nelson criticized the suggestion to hand over the reins to a union-associated group. She’d rather have an academic institution like the University of Washington or Seattle Central College manage it. 

The distinction may seem small, but, as we have seen with the task force to study design review, if the organization in charge of the task force has skin in the game, then some worry it will influence the final report to serve its own ends. 

In the latest Finance and Housing Committee meeting, Mosqueda compromised slightly, proposing an amendment to ask an area-school to partner with a nonprofit that isn’t cozy with Big Weed or employer associations. Nelson stuck to her guns and proposed an amendment to pick an “independent academic institute” to conduct the study. 

Black Business Groups, Unions Weigh In 

In public comment, Nelson found support from Black Excellence Cannabis (BEC), which advocates for equal Black ownership in the cannabis industry, and also the Washington Build Back Black Alliance (WBBA), a group of Black nonprofit executives and business leaders.

Peter Manning, one of the founders of BEC, said that his organization favored Nelson’s proposal because BEC opposes “certain things with unions” and thinks a school would be less likely to harbor an “ulterior motive.” 

WBBA founder Paula Sardinas reminded the council that UFCW proposed two cannabis equity bills to the State Legislature, both of which faced opposition from WBBA and the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs.

Nelson took the Black business interest’s support as a sign that her amendment responded to the needs of the Black community better than Mosqueda’s.

“If this legislation is really about advancing cannabis equity, we need to listen to the community that has spoken, the Black community members who have come today and have asked that their needs be centered in this discussion in going forward because otherwise it seems as though it could just be simply a vehicle for advancing the interests of an outside or a special interest,” Nelson said. 

But, according to Amirah Ziada, a representative from UFCW’s cannabis division, the anti-union “fear-mongering” did not consider the needs of Black and brown workers. She and Mosqueda both argued that while unions help workers, they also help employers, because bosses can’t run successful businesses with high turnover and unhappy workforces.

Besides, it's not as if UFCW has never sided with bosses or Nelson. 

Ultimately, the committee passed Mosqueda’s amendment 3 to 2. The committee did not vote on Nelson’s proposal because only one would be adopted for the vote in September. However, Nelson could still propose the amendment in full council ahead of the vote. I asked Nelson’s staff if she would bring the amendment forward again, and I will update if I get a response. 

If the council perceives that proposal as anti-union, then Nelson likely wouldn’t gain enough support to get her way at full council. Mosqueda seems pretty confident that Nelson’s “anti-union” sentiment won’t catch on.

“We may have other places around this country that are largely anti-union and that kind of rhetoric could fly, but not here. Not in our state, not in the city, where we've seen the benefits of bringing workers and businesses to the table,” Mosqueda said.