Organized Labor is Taking an Active Interest In Marijuana Legalization

California's booming economy has not been much of a boon for labor. Though security guards at Apple and tech bus drivers for Facebook have recently made modest gains, the state's famous Silicon Valley firms have been famously resistant to organized workers.

Luckily, there's another emerging industry in California that's both labor intensive and insanely lucrative. That would be marijuana, where the United Food and Commercial Workers — the same union that represents the folks at your friendly local Safeway — have been organizing workers since 2010.

In that time, only about 1,000 weed workers have signed on statewide. That's something, but union honchos are looking for more — which is a big reason why UFCW is taking an active role in laying the foundation to legalize recreational marijuana in California, the Sacramento Bee reported.

[jump] The union was active in the push to pass Measure 91 in Oregon last fall, and has also been active in medical marijuana pushes in New York State and Minnesota.

Having the imprimatur of labor in a labor-friendly state like California could help a recreational marijuana initiative gain legitimacy with voters. Then again, Prop. 19 in 2010 had UFCW Local 5's seal of approval — and that measure lost by seven points.

Further, there's still no initiative to speak of. There are several proposed legalization laws gathering the necessary signatures to qualify for the November 2016 ballot, but those efforts lack the money and influence of the outfit seen as the likeliest candidate to win legal weed in California: a coalition of the Drug Policy Alliance, Prop. 19 veterans Reform California, and other groups that worked on the successful initiatives in Washington and Colorado. This group has presented plenty of ideas, but has yet to release proposed legalization language. 

One reason why is that they're still gathering data, according to the Bee. UFCW sponsored several focus groups earlier in the year in which regular people were asked to dispense their views on weed. 

As has been said time and again, it's understood that a legalization initiative that's packaged as a modest, common sense drug war reform law rather than a stoner-friendly overturn of public safety has the best shot at winning.

Labor leaders also want to make sure that California's legalization has something that the other recreational cannabis ballot initiatives lacked: workforce regulations and job training.

“If you look at the legalization efforts in other parts of the country, questions about creating real training standards for the workforce weren't a piece of the conversation and dialogue,” said Jim Araby, executive director of UFCW's Western States Council, in comments to the Bee.

Araby noted that estimates of California's legal market always involve estimates in the billions of dollars. 

And “[w]hen you talk about billions of dollars, you’re not really talking about revenue generated, you’re actually talking about people working in it,” he told the paper.

What would a regulated marijuana labor market look like? Would the industry's seasonal, migratory labor force — like the trimmers who descend on Humboldt and Mendocino counties every fall — respond to big labor coming in?

Good questions that remain unanswered. And it's worth mentioning that labor has yet to make much of a foothold to date, even in places like San Francisco, where only two or three of the city's 27 dispensaries have organized workers.

Still, preparing cannabis for sale is indeed a labor-intensive undertaking. And if Big Pot does appear in California, there will be plenty of workers needed — and unions hoping to get involved. 

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