The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881 has filed for an election to organize workers at Cresco Labs Sunnyside Dispensary in Lakeview. The organizing move is part of a series of actions by a group of allied unions working to unionize cannabis workers across Illinois.

“We think that in this health crisis, workers will want to give voice to their concerns. These workers still have some working conditions imposed on them, and that’s why we’ve seen a surge from workers in dispensaries and cultivation centers going to the unions,” says Zach Koutsky, political director of UFCW 881.

Directed by the national American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), four unions have banded together to create the Cannabis Union. In Illinois the UFCW, through the Cannabis Union, successfully organized a Joliet Cresco cultivation facility in January, while the Teamsters failed to win an organizing vote last December at a Green Thumb Industries cultivation facility in Rock Island.

The Cannabis Union in Illinois is comprised of UFCW 881 for retail, growing, packaging, and front office work; Operating Engineers 399 for operations workers of cultivation and craft grow facilities; Teamsters Joint Council 25 for transportation; and SEIU Local 1 for security contractors.

Koutsky claims about 1,700 applicants for dispensaries have signed labor peace agreements with the Cannabis Union, about 43% of the total 4,000 applicants. Also, Koutsky claims over 160 craft grow and infusion applicants also have signed labor peace agreements.

There’s no question that labor unions are making strong moves to organize cannabis, both by organizing worker representation elections and by obtaining an extraordinary number of labor peace agreements with potential dispensaries that haven’t even opened yet.

But in a time when labor organization is on a downswing nationally, why would applicants willingly give up workers to union representation?

It’s a new industry,” says Anton Seals, Jr., who is assisting a series of social equity cannabis applicants and craft grow teams, “Who are even judging these applications? Who are reading these 300-page applications, and how are they weeding them out?”

As Seals suggests, the application review process for the next round of dispensaries, cultivation centers, and infusion businesses has pretty much been a black box. The state has not announced a clear process. While there are points awarded for including various elements, like adding a social equity ownership component, there’s still a lot of grey area, Since so many applicants will be maximizing their points, how exactly will they be judged once they all have all the points possible?

“I have a gut hunch, I think part of it is because of the application process. If companies tell the state they will do a labor peace agreement, they might get help with the application process,” says Amit Bindra, a labor law attorney at The Prinz Law Firm.

“My sense is that businesses think it is worthwhile to do whatever it takes to get a license. For that reason, if they think [signing a labor peace agreement] is going to be a benefit to help them open their business, they will do it,” says Bindra.

Meanwhile, Koutsky wants cannabis business owners to know that the Cannabis Union is open to discussion.

“We don’t represent the owners, investors, we represent the people on the front line,” he says. But, “we’re willing to have flexible contracts as the industry matures, as our knowledge in Illinois matures.”


Editor Mike is a co-founder and the editor of Grown In, a U.S. national cannabis industry newsletter and training company. His career has taken him from Capitol Hill to Chicago City Hall, from...