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Although Colorado is the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, Colorado does not yet have a certified marijuana workers union. That could change, however, if a National Labor Relations Board hearing for a group of workers at a Denver grow camp is positive.
After a hearing scheduled for March 11, the National Labor Relations Board will decide whether workers at a Denver marijuana grow owned by TweedLeaf should vote on union certification with the Local 26 Chapter of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Grain Millers Union are recognized. If the NLRB approves the move and 75 percent of the growing company’s employees vote for certification, TweedLeaf employees will become Colorado’s first marijuana workers union after multiple failed attempts across the state.
In an industry that operates outside of federal law, the majority of TweedLeaf Grow’s employees lack health care despite working forty hours a week or more, and struggle to maintain a steady supply of safe drinking water at work, according to the BCTGM 26 Organizer Nic Hochstedler. They went to the union with similar concerns when TweedLeaf was on the verge of buying their former employer Universal Herbs, he says.
“You were already excited about your old company, but the takeover of the company created more fear and uncertainty,” explains Hochstedler. “There are a lot of safety issues. The shop is divided into trimming and waxing staff and on the grow side they work with a lot of chemicals. They don’t have enough PPE and they often run out of gloves.”
A TweedLeaf employee says that while the company acted responsibly regarding COVID-19 precautions, it otherwise mistreated workers. (The identity of the employee who wanted to remain anonymous was verified through a license search by the state-run Marijuana Enforcement Division.) Trim workers always had to stand during work hours, the employee said, and could only sit if they had a doctor’s notice – even though no medical care is offered. Trimmers have been allowed to sit since they informed management of their union efforts, but the worker says clean drinking water is still not consistently provided at work.
According to Hochstedler, 83 percent of the Denver Growhouse workforce has signed BCTGM union certification cards, and employees notified TweedLeaf of their intention to unionize in February.
Marijuana labor unions exist in other medical marijuana and recreational marijuana states and have been on the rise since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but previous attempts to unionize Colorado’s pot industry have failed. An attempt by Pueblo pharmacy workers to join the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in 2016 failed on allegations of management bullying and anti-union tactics. In 2017, workers for the addition of Rocky Mountain High pharmacy chain facilities voted to join the UFCW, but withdrew their attempt with the NLRB in 2018.
Marijuana workers grow businesses that want to unionize and face significant barriers. Employers often argue that cultivation and trimming jobs are agricultural workers who, in addition to working in the rail and aviation industries, are exempt from federal labor protection. Colorado state law also does not recognize farm labor unions, although a bill in the Colorado Senate would change that. The proposal, which is still in its early stages, provides safeguards for marijuana growers, but only if 50 percent of the working property is used for horticultural purposes.
TweedLeaf, a Colorado-based company with eight pharmacies, five growing areas, and two extraction facilities, believes that growers are farm workers and comply with federal labor laws for union eligibility, according to CEO John Kaweske. He adds that he and his management team “have no problem with the union” but finds it “disappointing that they have established relationships in this way”.
According to the anonymous employee, growing employees do not get paid sick days and only get a week of vacation after working there for a year. Even so, when TweedLeaf was acquired in January, all Denver Growhouse employees were put on trial and their vacation days were reset to zero, the employee said.
“They said they would like us to see it as a job with career opportunities, but we have no insight into who our real owner is. When I applied for the job, it was health care is coming, a new owner is coming ‘and it’ll be great.’ But there were only carrots dangling, ‘adds the clerk. “If this is an industry legitimate enough to fund taxes and we are good enough for people to make millions of dollars, then we should be good enough to have basic labor rights. They want us as farmers but we are not seasonal and we are more than that. “
Kaweske admits there were problems with the company when TweedLeaf bought the grow house, but says they have either been fixed or the company is working to fix them.
“We were certainly aware that there were things that needed to be fixed. That’s why we buy these companies to fix them, “he says.” We bring a higher level of professionalism with us, regardless of whether it is acquisitions in pharmacies or cultivations like these. Usually the stores we buy are fixer tops. “
According to Kaweske, TweedLeaf pays 50 percent of health care and offers 401,000 plans for all full-time employees, but only after a ninety-day trial period has expired. Since TweedLeaf bought the grow house in January, the growers would be entitled to benefits in April, he says.
According to Hochstedler, the NLRB is expected to make a decision within a month. If the NLRB does not approve the vote on the certification of TweedLeaf workers at the March 11 hearing, the company is under no legal obligation to recognize the union. Hochstedler says he and his new members will continue to try to organize when this happens. However, he admits: “It will make things a lot more difficult.”
This story was updated on March 12th and includes comments from John Kaweske, CEO of TweedLeaf.
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Thomas Mitchell has been writing about everything cannabis-related for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate, and general news en route to publications like the Republic of Arizona, Inman, and Fox Sports. He is currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.