As R.I. cannabis industry grows, so does unionization

GREENLEAF COMPASSIONATE CARE CENTER employees voted, 21 to 1, to join United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 328, on April 6. / COURTESY UNITED FOOD AND COMMERCIAL WORKERS UNION LOCAL 328
GREENLEAF COMPASSIONATE CARE CENTER employees on April 6 voted 21-1 to join United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 328. / COURTESY UNITED FOOD AND COMMERCIAL WORKERS UNION LOCAL 328

As the cannabis industry is poised to expand in Rhode Island, the move to unionize its workers is gaining momentum.

The latest example: Workers at the Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center Inc. in Portsmouth voted 21-1 to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 328 on April 6.

That follows the unionization of a group of workers at the Ocean State Cultivation Center in Warwick. Last October, the UFCW and Ocean State Cultivation reached an agreement on a contract that the union said guarantees a living wage, comprehensive benefits, opportunities for career advancement and safe working conditions.

Sam Marvin, an organizer for the UFCW Local 328, said he is being solicited by other cannabis workers in Rhode Island. “The steps cannabis workers across the country are taking now are going to be really important moving ahead to make sure these jobs are good jobs with strong worker protections,” he said.

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The unionization moves come as the marijuana industry in Rhode Island is growing. There are about 70 licensed cultivators and three licensed dispensaries in the state for medical marijuana, according to the R.I. Department of Business Regulation. The state is preparing to issue six more dispensary licenses, and lawmakers are considering the legalization of recreational marijuana too.

It’s already a significant sector. There are about 1,030 workers in the state’s cannabis industry – 700 working in cultivating operations and 330 at dispensaries, according to the DBR. Sales from cultivators to dispensaries totaled approximately $19 million in 2020, and sales from dispensaries to patients totaled approximately $79 million, DBR said.

Matthew Santacroce, chief of DBR’s Office of Cannabis Regulation, said that the state does not take a position on the merits of unionization efforts so long as they do not impact compliance with existing law and regulations.

“The market for medical and adult-use cannabis is clearly growing in our country and in our region,” Santacroce said. “DBR is confident that provided adequate resources and statutory authority, we are well-equipped to regulate this growing industry in our state while monitoring other states closely to ensure alignment with best practices in market design, regulation and enforcement while safeguarding public health and public safety.”

Cannabis workers have been voting to unionize in other states in recent years, including in California, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

“It’s an emerging industry,” Marvin said. “California is where it took its roots. That movement moved across the country. [The UFCW is] the largest representative of cannabis workers, with tens of thousands of workers in multiple states.”

So far, the unionization effort in Rhode Island has been met with a mixed reaction among cannabis business owners.

Ocean State Cultivation signed a labor peace agreement, pledging not to interfere in the unionization process while workers generally agreed to not disrupt the production of marijuana.

Greenleaf, one of the state’s three licensed medical-marijuana dispensaries, was less accommodating. The owners hired anti-union consultants who attempted to dissuade the 30 workers from organizing, according to the UFCW.

Greenleaf co-owner Seth Bock did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

While Greenleaf employee Parker Terrell said he and his co-workers enjoy working at the dispensary, he felt compelled to seek unionization after seeing three of his co-workers get laid off in one day.

“They were letting people go. They cut our incentive program; they started putting pressure on us,” Terrell said. “That was when my co-workers and I signed the cards to unionize to protect ourselves and our job security.

“It was trusting ourselves that what we were experiencing wasn’t right and we deserved better treatment,” said Terrell. “So, if I can raise my hand and say, ‘Wait a second, something is not right here,’ I am going to do it.”

Terrell said the employees have been told by the owners that it could take a few years to agree on a union contract.

“I don’t look over my shoulder,” said Terrell. “[Bock] could fire me if he wanted to, and I would have to leave. But, at this point, I have the union behind me. So, I am better off because I have resources now that I didn’t have before.”

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Shuman@PBN.com.

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