Local Unions’ Growing Footprint in Legal Pot

Jim Araby of UFCW’s Local 5 talks about being on the frontlines of the fight to unionize cannabis workers.

When Jim Araby looks at the whiteboard in his office, all he sees is cannabis.

 “I’m looking at my wall,” Araby says during a recent phone interview, “and 60 to 70 percent of it is based on cannabis stuff.”

Araby isn’t staring at centerfolds from High Times thumb-tacked up next to Scarface and Bob Marley posters. He is tracking ongoing efforts on behalf of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) Local 5, a 30,000-member union based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

As UFCW Local 5’s Director of Strategic Campaigns, Araby is used to having a full plate, but these days, it’s a plate full of work overwhelmingly focused on California cannabis companies. 

“We have four major board fights,” Araby says. “We have four contract campaigns going on, and then I have six different organizing campaigns — and that’s just one local.”

 Even as things on the organized labor front continue to gather steam, the entire landscape remains largely a patchwork. Though California law mandates that any cannabis business with at least 10 employees ratify a labor peace agreement, the response from companies across different local jurisdictions has ranged from willing compliance to outright union busting. 

One issue, as Araby detailed, is the lack of enforcement coming from the state.

 “The enforcement from the state, on labor issues, is, to be quite honest, just not there yet,” he says. “I think the governor is trying to get his hands around this, as an administration, but as of now, it’s still very, very complaint driven. They’ll listen and they will do certain things, but it’s at the local level where the rubber really meets the road on this stuff.”

As an example, Araby pointed to recent UFCW efforts in San Francisco to bring several dispensaries into compliance with labor peace agreements. One common situation he’s encountering is resistance from pre-existing medical marijuana businesses that were subsequently “grandfathered” into the recreational market in 2018.

According to Araby, at least one local company — which he accuses of “union busting” — has argued that their status as a legacy medical marijuana dispensary means they are only obligated to abide by the state’s requirements and are not subject to the city’s newer labor peace agreements. By contrast, all new companies licensed since Prop 64 went into effect are required to abide by such agreements. 

Araby is now working with District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai on legislation that would essentially close this loophole and force pre-existing cannabis companies into compliance on labor peace agreements.

Unfortunately, it appears the timeline on any such action remains prolonged.

“We were told it was going to happen last year,” he says. “And then this past January, they extended things out for another year, supposedly because of the pandemic.”

Even as progress on that effort remains slow, Araby and UFCW Local 5 have had a series of significant victories. 

In January, they successfully got Oakland’s Have a Heart to contribute to a $75,000 payout to employees of two store locations to cover back pay owed through union contracts. Prior to that, in October 2020, UFCW 5 helped to ratify a union contract between the Shryne Group and workers of San Francisco’s Stiiizy-Mission dispensary. 

That’s why, on the whole, Araby is pretty optimistic when it comes to the future of organized labor’s relationship with legal cannabis.

“I’m hopeful,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong: There are some very good companies that are run by people who are very pro-union as owners and operators. Then you have companies that would probably rather operate without the union but they’re pragmatic and practical enough to know that it’s better to be our friend than to fight us.”

Thus, even if it’s the battles UFCW dutifully wages that are most likely to make headlines, the larger story may actually be the many successes that have started to pile up. As evidence, Araby reports that UFCW Local 5 currently has 10 or more employers under contract in Northern California. 

Additionally, he’s excited by what the prospect of a largely young, diverse workforce getting involved in organized labor through cannabis means for the movement at large.

 “For the most part I’m encouraged by the generational procession of unions,” Araby says. “I have conversations with people under 40 and they are showing a much higher, favorable attitude towards unions because they’ve seen the whole world is kind of jacked-up and that they need a voice.”

Zack Ruskin covers cannabis for SF Weekly. Twitter @zackruskin

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