The Starbuds dispensary on Belair Rd. in Baltimore, Md. Credit: Google Street View

With a budding medical market and adult use legalization on the horizon in the Mid Atlantic region, some dispensary and cultivation workers are reaching out for union representation.

In late February, 30 dispensary workers from Starbuds in Baltimore, Maryland filed to organize with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 27.

Workers in Deptford, NJ followed, boasting a set of 10 employees at Cannabist, a strip-mall dispensary in the heart of South Jersey, looking to join UFCW Local 360, having made their intentions clear in early March with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The goal for these employees isn’t just better benefits or future raises, say organizers, it’s to ensure the cannabis industry is supporting career employees and not just propping up employment numbers across their respective states.

“That’s the whole pitch for unionization,” said Connor Shaw, business agent for CEED 420, the New Jersey-based Cannabis Engineers Extractors and Distributors Union. “The reason to have a union is to have a say in your workplace. Medical plans, retirement, 401k options. Wages are important and one issue, but to make it a career there has to be benefits and a retirement vehicle.

“A lot of the people we have talked to are very interested in cannabis and choosing it because they love it. It’s an unknown and it’s new, but that’s why you build a union safeguard, to turn a job into a career.”

Shaw says CEED 420 aims to defend employees against layoffs and manage workplace rules, what are especially important to workers after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Those are two things that a union has the ability to deal with,” continued Shaw. “Right now we are experiencing inflation and hopefully we are almost out of the pandemic. But that’s what unions are about. We have contracts for people returning back from COVID and we negotiate raises to keep up with the cost of living. That’s two of the reasons people have turned to us.”

According to the NLRB, Cannabist employees filed a petition for representation election on March 4. Signatures are required from at least 30 percent of employees in the bargaining unit.

“At the current moment we are organizing Cannabist, owned by Columbia Care,” said Hugh Giordano, organizer for the UFCW Local 360. “They are a medical dispensary only at this moment, but the workers have been talking to us for a little while and taking the steps to formally join.

“Even though it’s only 10 people, Columbia Care is one of the largest MSOs in the country. Just like you see with Starbucks, a couple [stores] went and now more are following. They want to be treated equally and it will be a domino effect.”

When contacted, Nelson Hill, vice president of UFCW Local 27 in Baltimore, refused to comment on his union’s efforts to organize Starbuds dispensary workers.

Giordano’s organization has a specific cannabis division. According to their website, Local 360 and the UFCW represent thousands of cannabis workers, from dispensary employees to cultivation workers, across the country seeking better wages and improved benefits.

“It’s a big topic, a lot of movement around the country,” said Giordano. “Cannabis is my world and I’ve been working on it for a decade. We are modeling our union contracts based off of stable jobs that you can raise a family off of.

“We don’t look at Columbia Care or any operator as the enemy. We come at it in a very positive manner. We tell companies we want to be partners and there is no reason we can’t get things done. We all want the industry to expand.”

Giordano noted that these aren’t employees that are unhappy with their management or working conditions. They are career-oriented individuals who want to continue and progress their careers in a widely unknown industry.

“The CEO today may be great, but what if a new CEO comes in?” asked Girodano. “Everything they’ve worked hard for can be stripped away. Unions are long-term protection. We aren’t anti-management, anti-profit. If anything, we want to promote these companies.”

As the cannabis market continues to expand, Shaw thinks these small organizing efforts are just the beginning.

“It’s a growing industry.” he said. “You are going to see a lot of employers entering the industry and it might be hard to differentiate on a product level. But I think by having talented employees that foster a culture of longevity, you will have people that [consumers] want to come back to.

“I think that is how an employer will differentiate and be able to pay and attract high level talent.”