Illinois Marijuana Workers Fight to Unionize

As the Illinois marijuana industry surpasses $1 billion in revenue from its first year supporting recreational marijuana sales, marijuana laborers are beginning to seek higher pay, career advancements, and better protection from the pandemic through unionizing, the Chicago Tribune reports. “The industry has unfortunately just provided jobs, and not the well-paying careers that we all thought cannabis was going to generate,” Moises Zavala, director of organizing at Local 881 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which is currently representing cannabis workers in Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune.

The state’s first cannabis union contract was ratified in December 2020, beginning the process of giving 180 workers at the Cresco labs cultivation center the protections they are seeking. Late last month, 40 employees at Sunnyside in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood became “the first dispensary workers in Illinois to ratify a union contract,” — setting a precedent felt statewide. “If they’re able to get some significant victories and negotiate some good contracts, they can build momentum, they can point to those as they organize workers at other facilities,” Martin Malin, co-director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at Chicago-Kent College of Law, told the Chicago Tribune.

Industry Growth

Weed is legal in 36 states, including 15 that allow recreational use, the Chicago Tribune explains. The industry supports about 321,000 full-time equivalent jobs nationally as of January, up 32 percent year over year, according to the 2021 Leafly Jobs Report, and this growth is also seen in Illinois.

Since Illinois legalized recreational marijuana use in January 2020, the state saw $1.03 billion in revenue — most of which came from the $669 million in recreational weed sales and more than $366 million in medical sales — according to the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which regulates dispensaries in the state.

This fast-growing sales pace has only accelerated in 2021, with nearly $232 million in total marijuana sales through February, putting the state’s growth rate in the same playing field as California and Colorado’s explosive marijuana sales.

Despite Illinois’s massive revenue and growth in the industry, workers say they are left behind in the advancement.

Jake Lytle, 22, told the Chicago Tribune that he has been working as a specialist making $16-per-hour at Windy City Cannabis, a recreational dispensary that opened last July.

“The marijuana industry has been generating an insane amount of revenue for these corporations,” Lytle said. “We just need workers to actually be involved in the prosperity of this industry.”

According to a 2020 salary guide published by Vangst, a Denver-based cannabis recruiting website, says that retail marijuana product specialists average $15 an hour. Moreover, 90% of companies surveyed said they offered benefits like paid time off, medical insurance, and stock options.

However, when talking to individual employees, many voice concerns about the size of the facilities, the lack of break rooms, and a failure in COVID-19 safety protocols.

Lytle added to the discussion, saying that in order to properly keep social distance, he takes care of customers on an outside patio — even during the Chicago winter.

The Illinois Marijuana Union Movement

In January 2020, workers at the Cresco Labs marijuana grow facility in Joliet voted to join the UFCW, two weeks after recreational weed sales were legalized in Illinois, ratifying the state’s first union cannabis contract less than a year later, the Chicago Tribune details.

Employees at the Sunnyside dispensary in Lakeview, which is also owned by Cresco, voted to join the union in June and ratified their contract on February 26. “Terms of the deal include built-in wage increases, more vacation time, reduced health care costs and a 40 percent discount on Cresco-brand cannabis products,” the Chicago Tribune reports.

While these headways made great advancements for the workers, Jason Erkes, a Cresco spokesman said that the process was difficult.

Moises Zavala also commented on the process of unionizing, saying much of the movement lost its steam after the prolonged six-month organizing process.

“It wears people out,” Zavala said, as quoted by the Chicago Tribune. “But that doesn’t take away that employees still need the protection.

More marijuana workers are looking forward to their upcoming unionizing UFCW vote, as ballots for employees at the Ascend dispensary in Springfield were mailed out last Tuesday, with an April 20 vote count.

This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano.

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