Fabricio DaSilva, Secretary-Treasurer of UFCW Local 1445 has been busy organizing cannabis businesses across Massachusetts. Credit: Submitted / UFCW 1445

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445 have been taking advantage of a quirk of Massachusetts law that allows agriculture workers, such as those who work in cannabis cultivation, to organize with signed union cards without having to hold an election.

“It’s easier when it comes down to the process,” said Fabricio DaSilva, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 1445. “Traditional organizing, once you get a majority of the workers signed, you have to go through the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board).”

Typically, a union election is spurred when at least 30% of eligible workers file union authorization cards with the NLRB. The exception to this rule are agricultural workers, who do not have this right under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which is a foundation of modern labor law. Specifically, the law excludes farm workers from the NLRA’s protections from being fired for organizing activity. 

However, Massachusetts law boosts union organizing because the state’s labor board is allowed to recognize unions without an election if a majority of a location’s workers submit signed cards.

DaSilva noted that over the last 10 years, changes at the NLRB have slowed down the traditional process of organizing. For example, an employer used to have 7 days to appeal a filing, they now have 14. Small changes like that can add up.

“Back in the Obama era, we could have an election in 29 days,” he said. “Now, we’ll go two months by the time I have an election.”

A longer period of time before the first filing and the actual vote can make it more difficult for unions to organize.

“It gives the employers time to come up with scare tactics,” he said.

DaSilva claims that a majority of the election petitions his local files have signature cards from 80% to 100% of a company’s staff, meaning that a super-majority of the workers are interested in the union at the time they sign the cards in order to start the process. Despite their early organization efforts, the union does not always win every election.

“How is it that by the time we have a vote, sometimes we end up losing? it is only because of the anti-union propaganda, which is based on fear and uncertainty,” he claimed.

There are some cases where employers and unions can negotiate to allow workers to be grouped together as a labor unit regardless of how much of their job involves touching plants. This was the case two years ago when Local 1445 was able to successfully organize the cultivation and manufacturing workers at Mayflower Medicinals in Holliston, Mass.

“They wanted to get it over with and I took advantage of it,” said DaSilva. “They also thought that I didn’t have the production side. At the time I didn’t, but I was able to work really hard with the organizer.”

DaSilva said that, much like other would-be union members, cannabis workers often seek better wages and benefits. In addition they are more likely to be incensed by poor treatment from employers.

“What I’ve noticed about cannabis workers, the employer, the way they treat the workers, they have this way of making them feel like you are lucky to have a job in cannabis and that’s because of me,” he said. “It’s like, ‘if it wasn’t for this company you would be doing something in the black market.’”

The newness of the industry makes it ripe for organizing, but the industry also tends to attract workers that are more receptive to the union’s messages, according to Gabe Camacho, director of politics and legislation for Local 1445.

“In general terms, the workforce tends to be younger with very little exposure to unions. However, these workers in cannabis tend to have a good sense of social justice and that’s why they’re outraged by their managers and supervisors,” he said. “I find it encouraging and heartening that the young workforce is willing to take collective action and fight on the job for their rights.”

Most recently DaSilva filed petitions for elections on behalf of workers from two dispensaries, Insa in Salem, and Sanctuary Wellness in Gardner, Mass. He said that he plans to continue going after workers at Sanctuary’s two other dispensaries and its cultivation site.

“I’m hoping that people organize cannabis workers with a long term mindset and not because it’s the hottest thing in the market right now,” said DaSilva. “Yes, it’s an opportunity to get more members, but this industry is going to be much more of a monster if we don’t fight them now.”

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Zack cut his journalistic teeth covering high school sports in the south before spending a decade covering local government, politics and the courts in the Boston, Massachusetts area. He's previously written...