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This article was published 8/3/2019 (224 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Canadian branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union is seeking to organize workers in the country's nascent legal cannabis industry, where unionized labour remains rare.
Certain aspects of the marijuana sector make it a good fit for unionization, said UFCW Canada national representative Kevin Shimmin.
"The production itself, for most companies, is in fairly large, relatively industrial settings… It is really exhausting work, there's some pretty serious health and safety concerns," he said. "The pay has been all over the place: some companies pay a little bit better than others, some are just paying minimum wage."
The Cannabis Council of Canada, an industry group that represents some of the biggest players in the legal marijuana industry, doesn't track the proportion of its member businesses that use union labour and hasn't taken a formal position.
Anecdotally speaking, CCC executive director Allan Rewak said unionization rates in the industry are low.
Rewak attributes it partly to the relative newness of Canada's regulated marijuana industry. However, profit-sharing and stock options offered to employees by some cannabis companies might also help ease "the perceived separation between labour and management and (create) a general ethos of one team building great companies together for the fiscal and personal benefit of all," he wrote in an email.
From the UFCW perspective, the drive to unionize workers faces one major obstacle: a significant number of government-regulated companies grow their crops in Ontario, where cannabis production workers are classified as agricultural workers and are therefore ineligible for unionization under provincial law. (UFCW is challenging that standing, said Shimmin.)Advertisement
The international union for private-sector workers has successfully organized thousands of workers in different parts of the U.S. marijuana industry.
"I'm always optimistic," Shimmin said. "I would think that 100 per cent of the (Canadian) sector can be unionized, whether it's production, retail, or support services like call services (or) administration."
UFCW Canada is making some inroads in those other parts of the cannabis industry. The union already represents about 60 workers at three of Quebec's 12 licensed cannabis stores. (Workers at other Quebec cannabis stores are represented by other unions.)
Shimmin said UFCW union cards were signed this past week by a majority of the roughly 20 workers at the privately-owned Toronto call centre that provides customer service for the Ontario Cannabis Store. A vote for those workers to join UFCW is expected next week, he said.
UFCW isn't the only union to take notice of the cannabis sector.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) originally expected its members would staff provincially-owned cannabis stores in Ontario — a plan that was stymied after the Progressive Conservatives took power from the Liberals in 2018, and started laying the groundwork for private cannabis stores.
Now, OPSEU is trying to unionize workers at the province's cannabis distribution warehouse in Oakville, which is run by a private corporation. OPSEU president Warren Thomas said the warehouse employs between 100 and 200 workers, some of whom make about $16 an hour.
"It'll probably take quite a while, but I've got some organizers on it, and they're making headway," said Thomas. "This industry, everybody says how much money there is floating around, and how rich people are going to get. Well, then, why can't you pay workers a good living wage?"
Canada's cannabis industry should be able to absorb the increased costs that would presumably accompany a more unionized workforce, Shimmin said. If leading weed producers could afford to throw promotional concert series across Canada ahead of legalization, "then they can more than afford to pay good wages to folks."
Shimmin said the single biggest benefit of unionization for cannabis sector workers is job security and protection from unjust termination, especially in an industry that's changing fast.
Other advantages for unionized cannabis workers are the same as in other, more established industries, he said: enhanced health and safety protection, a shield against workplace bullying, and regular increases to pay and benefits.
"These are all things that cannabis workers deserve, just like everybody else."