As Marijuana Industry Grows, Workers Begin to Unionize

Alex Hagar is a "budtender" who hopes to make a career for himself in the cannabis industry. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

At the Hugs Alternative Care dispensary, there is far more for sale than regular old smokeable marijuana. The Sacramento shop has cannabis butter, barbecue sauce, lollipops — the list goes on.

Brittany Dyke is one of the “budtenders” at the shop who helps customers choose between all these products. “It’s like walking into a candy shop for adults,” Dyke said.

On Jan. 1, adults in California will be able to walk into a shop like Hugs and buy marijuana products for recreational use, a development that is going to cause the industry to boom. As investors and owners get ready to cash in, an effort is underway to unionize marijuana workers like Dyke. The hope is to give them more protections and a say in the rapidly expanding industry.


Dyke and every other employee at Hugs is in United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 8. The dispensary is one of a handful in the state that is unionized. Because Hugs is a union shop, workers have performance reviews, scheduled wage increases and benefits like health care. Unionization wasn’t actually the workers’ idea. It came from their boss.

In 2011, Hugs CEO David Spradlin brought in the UFCW union. “I come from construction,” Spradlin said. “I come from the working class. I know how it feels to have your job and your livelihood in someone else’s hand.”

“My hope has always been that the cannabis industry doesn’t turn into 7-Eleven,” Spradlin said. “I want the cannabis industry to turn into something that people want to get into and have a career in, something that a person right out of high school can go into and get a good job.”

Spradlin said the union has taught him a lot about managing workers in an industry that does not have many established business practices.

“Having protocols in place and just having it all systemized and making sure everyone gets a fair deal is hugely valuable,” Spradlin said.

Angelica Sanchez is a floor supervisor at the dispensary. She said the union saved her job.

“I was fired, filed a grievance with the union, and got in the same room with the guy who owned the dispensary and got my job back,” Sanchez said.

The guy she met with was David Spradlin.

“We terminated her,” Spradlin said. “But protocol wasn’t followed and it turns out we were wrong.”

James Araby is executive director of the UFCW Western States Council, and he said that generally in the marijuana business there’s a lot of worker abuse.

“We’ve found in this industry that many workers were paid in cash or product or not paid at all, that many of their rights were violated, and that some might not know that they even have rights,” Araby said. “They can be working 12-hour days and not be getting paid overtime.”

As marijuana becomes increasingly commercialized, there is a worry that big corporations will come in and push down wages. The “Walmartization of weed” is a phrase that is thrown around a lot these days by workers and growers in the industry.

Araby said there is an opportunity right now for the union to carve out protections for workers.

“There are very few times in history when a labor union can be at the beginning of the dawn of a new multibillion-dollar industry and play a direct role in helping shape it,” Araby said.

Only a handful of dispensaries in California are unionized, but Araby said the UFCW is reaching out now to get other cannabis operations on board.

“UFCW is definitely interested in organizing workers from seed to sale,” Araby said. That includes everyone from trimmers up in Humboldt County to “budtenders” like Gloria Santos, who works at the Hugs dispensary.

Santos, 27, comes from a long line of unionized longshoremen.

“Ten years ago my parents kicked me out,” Santos said. “They told my whole family to stop talking to me and that I was just going to sell weed for my life.”

Santos said becoming part of the union legitimized her work in the eyes of her family.

“My great-grandmother knows what I do, and she’s a little wary of it,” Santos said. “But the fact that I have the union back is everything to her.”

Santos said she is excited to work in an industry that is growing so rapidly and where she can have the protection of a union. Unlike other retail jobs, Santos said she thinks cannabis could be a career that supports her long term.

As Marijuana Industry Grows, Workers Begin to Unionize 19 December,2017Sam Harnett

Author

Sam Harnett

Sam Harnett is a reporter who covers tech and work at KQED. For the last five years he has been reporting on how technology and capitalism are changing the way we think about ourselves and what it means to work. He is the co-creator of The World According to Sound, a 90-second podcast that features different sounds and the stories behind them.

Before coming to KQED, Sam worked as an independent reporter who contributed regularly to The California Report, Marketplace, The World and NPR. In 2013, he launched a podcast called Driving With Strangers. In 2014, he was selected by the International Center for Journalists for a reporting fellowship in Japan, where he covered the legacy of the Fukushima disaster.

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