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Marijuana and Labor

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Most people don’t care about labor law. Most people don’t care about union politics or strategies either. That includes most progressives. But there are occasions where the intricate details of labor strategy do see the light of publications because of the industry. The best example of this is in the professional sports unions, because people are fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers far more than they are fans of U.S. Steel. It provides an opening for a more nuanced and detailed discussion than usual. Among certain circles, this is also true of the newly legalized marijuana industry in the four relevant states of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. So how could marijuana workers unionize? Raymond Hogler:

One union strategy is to ignore federal law and engage employers through a cooperative strategy modeled on the employee representation plans popular in the U.S. in the early 1900s. The ERPs, as they were known, featured elected employee delegates who dealt with the employer on workers’ behalf. The landmark example is the plan created by John Rockefeller Jr. and MacKenzie King following the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Rockefeller’s ideal of industrial democracy created a national template for employment relations until the New Deal and led to a vast expansion of company unions.

Sen. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.), the author of the NLRA, viewed ERPs as incompatible with the macroeconomic function of collective bargaining and outlawed them in Section 8(2) of the NLRA. In Wagner’s view, those entities could not effectively raise wages for workers and overcome the effects of the Great Depression. The ban is still in place, and it explains the highly publicized union drive at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn. The auto manufacturer agreed to union participation in its works council, but it insisted that the United Auto Workers win recognition as a representative under NLRB procedures. Volkswagen eventually accepted the union based on authorization cards and established a formal relationship. The UAW soon thereafter released a statement describing its “new vision for the future of unionization” through the works council.

Given the ambiguity of our labor law, cannabis workers and the UFCW might approach employers with a similar scheme for representation. The strategy would not require certification at the state or federal level, and it could be formalized through a memorandum of understanding setting forth the basic rights of the parties. The agreement could contain provisions for arbitration to resolve any disputes about its terms. The cigar manufacturing firm of Straiton & Storm developed such a program in the 1880s, and company president George Storm a few years later testified before a congressional committee about the virtues of the system for both labor and management. ERPs could easily be used the same way in the cannabis industry.

A second innovative approach is to bring the sale of cannabis under direct state control and treat workers as public-sector employees with collective bargaining rights conferred by the state. Don Stevens, the mayor of North Bonneville, Wash., created a public development authority under state municipal law to fund a retail marijuana outlet. Stevens believes that his town drug store is unique in the country, if not the world (his business cards are titled the “The Marijuana Mayor”). The operation has repaid its initial financing and will soon be making a profit that can be dedicated to improving parks, roads, schools and other municipal functions. As government employees, the store’s workers are eligible to unionize under state law if they want. Stevens says they have the same wages and benefits as other municipal employees and, as a result, are more than satisfied with their jobs.

In other words, these are options available to a wide number of workers, but it’s useful to think about them in terms of this newly legalized sector. The idea of making weed workers state workers is also enough to make any conservative head explode.

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