Mikie Hernandez, a worker and union organizer at PharmaCann’s River North Chicago location. Credit: Talia Anderson

Cannabis workers at two Illinois PharmaCann/Verilife locations voted recently to join Teamsters Local 777 and rejected a union sanctioned by the company in the same election.

Cannabis sales consultants and dispensing inventory specialists at the Verilife River North and Arlington Heights locations voted unanimously to unionize.

“The cannabis industry is young, and I think everybody here got involved thinking they would have a chance to be a part of the industry and be a part of shaping the industry,” said Verilife employee, Mikie Hernandez, an employee at the River North location. “I think the fact that the future of this industry is being built on our labor, makes us feel that we’re entitled to have a voice.”

Both River North and Arlington Heights employees are currently working to complete a list of demands. Chief among them are better wages, consistent work rules, a 40-hour work week, and benefits.

River North employees would like the company to deal with what Hernandez said is a company parking lot that is too small. Part-time employees must pay for parking when there’s no room in the company lot.

Jim Glimco, President of Teamsters Local 777, recognized there’s competition among labor unions to organize the cannabis industry.

“With Verilife, we’re organizing five locations at once,” Glimco said. “It’s a big demand because people working at these cannabis locations realize this is a real profitable industry and they want to be compensated and treated properly. It’s an industry that can afford to pay them well and provide benefits.”

UFCW organizers are clearly upset that Teamsters is edging them out of representing some dispensary workers.

“We think it’s interesting that Teamsters 777, who do not currently have an active union cannabis contract in Illinois, are telling cannabis workers that they are a better choice. But promises and talk can only get workers so far, strong union contracts that create cannabis careers are what workers are really after,” said Teresa Ramirez-Gonzalez, director of organizing for Local 881 UFCW. “We don’t tell workers that contracts come quick or easy, we think that any organization that promises something else is either not being truthful or has never done it.”

One of the biggest issues in the industry, Glimco added, is that a lot of workers want to be full-time with 40 hours a week on a regular basis.

“Some of the locations are not doing that,” Glimco said. “They’re having them work part-time and they are not getting the benefits and the hours they would like. So, I want to make this a normal job, [a] career. These places are mostly open seven days a week and the knowledge the workers have is amazing. They are a big asset to these companies. The company is very lucky to have these guys. To keep the caliber they have, they’ve got to pay them properly.”

Cannabis consultants earn an average $11 to 13 per hour, according to Cannacruiter, a cannabis recruiting company. Depending on location, industry sector, and job description, inventory specialists earn between $25,000 and $45,000 per year, according to jobs found on Simply Hired, a job board site.

Employees also want consistency in the work rules, which Glimco says changes daily. They also want employee discounts on products they purchase.

PharmaCann was the one to first bring up organizing with a union. It sent an email to employees saying the company was not against unionization, according to Hernandez

“It was kind of interesting that the company themselves actually brought it up. They signed an agreement with a local union to come in and talk to everybody.”

Hernandez and other employees listened to what UFCW Local 881 representatives had to say but did not see them as a good fit.

“We came across Teamsters 777 during an online search and reached out to them and a couple of others but seemed to click with Teamsters 777,” Hernandez said. “We talked to a couple of people they represented, and they had nothing but good things to say. We met with them many times and decided we wanted to bring them in. We voted by ballot about a week and-a-half ago.”

Hernandez added that he did not feel Verilife had done anything particularly egregious and that the company as a whole does more good than bad.

Both River North and Arlington Heights employees are now waiting to move forward with negotiations with the company. Negotiated contracts may be site specific, according to Glimico.

An election competition between Teamsters and UFCW at other Verilife locations is also coming up. Ballots go out November 16 for Ottawa and Romeoville employees and on November 24 for Rosemont, Ill.

In October, Chicago-based multi-state operator PharmaCann announced the acquisition of Denver-based LivWell Enlightened Health, expanding PharmaCann’s retail reach and adding cultivation capacity in both Colorado and Michigan. There’s no word on whether or not PharmaCann will extend its friendliness to labor organizing in other states.

“Our rights, duties, and obligations in response to organized labor activity are well-settled under the National Labor Relations Act and we will conduct ourselves in good faith within those guidelines,” said Jeremy Unruh, PharmaCann’s senior vice president of public and regulatory affairs, in an email.

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.