Washington’s legal cannabis industry employs over 10,000 people, yet only a small fraction of those workers are members of unions. But that could soon change if state lawmakers pass a bill that would place strict employment standards on legal pot businesses and heavily incentivize owners to sign contracts with unions.
The bill is being pushed by the state’s largest private sector union, which says it’s necessary to improve working conditions in the industry. But the law is causing panic among owners of pot companies, who say they're being unfairly singled out for labor laws that other businesses won’t face.
“This prejudice bill against Washington cannabis licensed companies will force the majority of us to close,” said Zahra Kohl, owner of the legal pot company Kohl Processing, during a hearing in Olympia last week. “As an emerging industry with so many hurdles to overcome, [this proposed law] is a stab in the back.”
The law is largely being pushed for by United Food and Commercial Workers 21 (UFCW 21), a local trade union that already represents employees of one Washington pot shop chain and is openly courting workers at other legal weed businesses.
Samantha Grad, UFCW 21’s legislative action director, told The Stranger that the stringent labor standards are needed in the legal weed industry because employees are currently not treated fairly.
“We are hearing from a lot of workers that used to be in this industry and left that this is not a stable workplace," Grad said. "A stable workplace comes from workplace standards and good jobs.”
The proposed law would require that pot businesses in the state with more than 20 employees to improve their working conditions—by earning 100 points on a grading system based on 20 different criteria—or have their pot licenses cancelled.
The grading scale is heavily weighted towards pot businesses unionizing their private businesses, with criteria like having a unionized workforce governed by a collective bargaining agreement worth 70 points and signing a labor peace agreement with a union, a type of agreement in which the company agrees not to attempt to block unionization, worth 50 points.
The grading scale then has some 18 other criteria worth significantly fewer points, such as: establishing a workplace health and safety plan (worth 20 points), paying employees 150 percent of the state minimum wage (worth 20 points), and providing retirement benefits (worth 15 points).
The grading scale is being called a de-facto requirement for unions thanks to its heavy weighting towards pro-union policies. Bob Battles, the government affairs director of the conservative Association of Washington Businesses trade group, said the scale’s union-friendly weight could open it up to a challenge at the federal Labor Relations Board.
“We have real concern about this bill that sets a different standard for one industry than for all other industries,” Battles said. “If safety and wage and hour issues are the big issue here, if you look at the point system those are some of the lowest points you get. Yet you have the highest points for a CBA [Collective Bargaining Agreement] and 50 points for labor peace agreement.”
When a company signs a labor peace agreement they form a contract with a specific union in which they agree to not actively fight against attempts by their employees to unionize. Collective bargaining agreements are the contracts unions sign with employers that govern workplace standards like pay and benefits.
Sarah Cherin, a lobbyist for UFCW21, said that it was inaccurate to say the bill would all-but require unions.
“That is tangibly false,” Cherin said at a senate hearing last Thursday. “Having labor peace and CBAs is just one way to earn the required points. In fact, having a community engagement program, having asexual harassment policies, or having a health and safety plan... all of those will get you points under this system.”
Under the latest version of the bill, having a community engagement plan (20 points), a sexual harassment policy (20 points), and a health and safety plan (20 points), is worth less combined than having a collective bargaining agreement (70 points).
Daniel Shortt, a Seattle attorney specializing in cannabis law at the firm Harris Bricken, said he saw the bill’s point system as either “a massive incentive or a default requirement” for companies to sign labor peace agreements or collective bargaining agreements.
“It does provide these other means to meet the threshold, but the fact that those are the two highest point tallying conditions to satisfy this [license] renewal, I don’t think that’s lost on the bill’s drafters,” Shortt told The Stranger.
Public testimony for the bill has been largely negative during two hearings at the state legislature, but some workers have testified positively about the law. Amirah Harris, who said she worked at Lucid, a legal pot shop in Puyallup, said the law provided necessary protections for the industry.
“I had to leave the industry because wages were too low and there were no benefits like health insurance or a retirement plan, just free or discounted weed,” Harris said. “I can’t pay my rent with weed and I certainly can’t pay my doctor either.”
Not all workers are in favor of new laws regulating their workplace. Casey Jennet, who said he works at Seattle’s Craft Elixirs pot company, said it was unfair to apply these strict employment regulations to only the cannabis industry.
“If you want to do this to this industry but not do it in restaurants then there isn’t a legislator in this state that isn’t a hypocrite,” Jennet said. “Because restaurant workers get abused in a tremendous manner. [While working in restaurants] I’ve dealt with sexual harassment, I’ve dealt with wrongful termination… But now less than a year into the cannabis industry, and I’m in a business with 22 or 23 employees, and I’m looking at what faces are going to get cut to get us below the 20 number.”
When asked why the cannabis industry needed workplace protections that are more stringent than other industries, UFCW organizer Anna Minard said it's because the industry has “unique and strange workers rights violations.”
“People can get paid in cash and we feel like it’s hard to regulate if you are getting paid in cash,” said Minard, who was a former Stranger writer. “People can get paid in product.”
A spokesperson for the Liquor and Cannabis Board said it is already illegal for companies to pay their employees with cannabis products.