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Trying to legalize an entire industry so you can unionize it? That's some long-term political thinking right there, and it's what the United Food and Commercial Workers is doing around medical marijuana. Unfortunately, at the same time the union is rapidly organizing marijuana dispensaries, the federal government is rapidly shutting them down—after all, no matter what some states or cities say, it's still an illegal drug as far as the feds are concerned.
For instance, just weeks after workers at 14 Los Angeles dispensaries joined the union last spring, several federal agencies raided and shut down businesses in Oakland, putting around 100 union members out of work. The idea was, in part, that medical marijuana businesses could show that they were reputable and responsible, following labor laws and in other ways legitimate members of the business community, by letting their workers unionize. The UFCW wasn't going to be working with bosses who didn't have their acts together. And the UFCW could provide increased political access and ground game for legalization efforts. As Molly Redden reports at The New Republic, the UFCW has put thousands of volunteers on the ground in legalization campaigns or fighting medical marijuana bans and that increased political access really has come through at the state level. The problem is, that's not the whole story:
To an extent, this loose partnership has functioned well at the state level. The UFCW has been an unseen force in nearly every big push to pass marijuana-friendly laws and ordinances in Western states like California and Colorado. But federal crackdowns on pot retailers remain a constant bugbear, threatening to dry up one of the UFCW’s best streams for new membership. And while unions aren’t afraid to stare down large employers, they’re outmatched by the federal government. “We, through our international union back in D.C., are going to bend anybody’s ear who is going to listen to us about changing federal law,” said John Hughes, a cannabis division rep who works with the Local 5. “But we can’t stop the DOJ.” And when the Justice Department does come after marijuana workers, “having the union there doesn’t protect them at all.”
Because of that, the number of unionized marijuana workers has gone from over 2,000 to around 500, even as legalized medical marijuana gains steam in the states.
If the federal government passes legislation allowing states to pass medical marijuana laws, though ... suddenly, the UFCW's hard work could pay off in a big way in a new, unionized industry that Walmart won't be undercutting anytime soon.