Unions want to organize Illinois' marijuana industry

Ally Marotti, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

Workers at the Cresco Labs marijuana grow facility in Joliet, Ill., voted Tuesday on whether to unionize, two weeks after recreational weed sales started in Illinois.

One hundred of the roughly 130 workers at the facility are eligible to vote on whether to be represented by the United Food & Commercial Workers union, said Zach Koutsky, legislative and political director for Local 881 UFCW.

The workers want higher wages, lower health care costs, more respect on the job and other requests, Koutsky said. Results were expected by Tuesday evening, but were not available by deadline.

Some experts have long predicted that Illinois' marijuana industry could become one of the largest in the country, and unlike in other industries, there are reasons why marijuana company owners might more easily accept unionized employees.

The state concluded its first round of applications earlier this month for 75 new dispensary licenses. More than 700 applicants submitted applications for those licenses, which are set to be awarded in May.

The state scores the applications, awarding points for a number of criteria, including their labor and employment practices. Applicants can get credit by entering into a labor peace agreement, in which a company agrees not to disrupt union efforts and a union agrees not to disrupt business.

Koutsky said Local 881 executed those agreements with nearly half of the applicants for new dispensary licenses.

Cresco is one of the largest marijuana companies in Illinois, and operates around the country. Besides Joliet, it has marijuana grow facilities in Kankakee and Lincoln. It also operates five dispensaries in Illinois, with plans to open at least five more in the state.

"We support our employees' right to be represented if they wish, while also strongly advocating for their right to vote in a secret ballot election," said Cresco spokesman Jason Erkes. "The choice is theirs and we support them in whatever decision they make."

Young industries sometimes use collective bargaining agreements to professionalize the work and establish standards for workers and employers, said Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois.


"That can be a real stabilizing dynamic," he said. "These elections for union certification become really important signals of what the standards are going to be in the industry."

The United Food & Commercial Workers union already represents more than 10,000 cannabis workers in more than a dozen states, Koutsky said.

The vote at Cresco isn't the first effort among Illinois cannabis workers to organize. A vote last month by employees at Green Thumb Industries' grow facility in Rock Island to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters narrowly failed.

Illinois dispensaries sold more than $19.7 million of recreational marijuana in the first 12 days of sales. The stores have battled long lines and shortages, and at times halted recreational sales. Some dispensaries also closed for a day to give employees a break. Still, Illinois has seen some of the strongest early days of sales in the history of legal weed.

"This is Illinois. The labor movement is strong and thriving here," Koutsky said. "We are in the new law going forward, which means we will be in the industry."

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