- Interview by
- Karl Leffme
Several years after the legalization of medicinal marijuana, Illinois legalized its recreational use on January 1, 2020. Business has been booming: in 2020 alone, Illinois weed sales topped $1 billion.
As tends to happen under capitalism, very little of that money has gone to the workers who actually create the profit. Workers at Windy City Cannabis allege that lack of adequate compensation and protection in such a lucrative industry, amid a pandemic, led them to organize with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 881. UFCW has been leading the organizing charge of cannabis workers now representing tens of thousands across the country.
Jacobin contributor Karl Leffme interviewed Jake Lytle, a product specialist at Windy City Cannabis, about their union drive, what it’s like to work and organize in the marijuana industry, and why unions are necessary for any worker’s safety and protection.
Can you give a timeline of you and your coworkers’ process of organizing?
At the beginning of the new year, we had a clear majority sign union cards, so we decided to go public with our campaign. Recently, the company tried to block us from doing a mail-in election, which we think is the safest option with COVID. After bringing this to the National Labor Relations Board, we won the ruling in our favor and proceeded with a mail-in election. Ballots will be sent to everyone on February 25, and we’ll have until the end of March to mail them in. Once we’ve done that, if the majority votes yes to join the UFCW, we will begin forming a bargaining team and starting negotiations for our first union contract with the company.
What catalyzed the organizing efforts at your shop?
Windy City Cannabis was originally owned by a corporation called Grassroots, which operated three medical dispensers in the South suburbs of Chicago. Because of their roots in medicinal marijuana, they were then able to secure a license to open a shop on Weed Street in Chicago for a recreational dispensary. We opened our doors on July 1.
In the beginning, we were not operating at full capacity, just using a small corner of the building that used to be a restaurant. By October, we were hoping to have a fully operational dispensary, where we wouldn’t have to do things like take walk-up orders outside on the back patio, which isn’t sustainable in a Chicago winter.
In September, Grassroots was acquired by national cannabis brand Curaleaf. Curaleaf is the largest cannabis company in the United States, operating over ninety dispensaries, both medical and recreational, in over a dozen states. This was cause for concern, to be bought out by such a powerful corporation without knowing what to expect from the job in a new industry. Is there room for advancement? What are the standard wages? Are there benefits?
From the start, there was a lack of communication from the top on what the acquisition would mean for us as workers, the dispensary, potential plans for expansion.
As the winter months started approaching, we had questions about operating on a day-to-day basis safely with COVID in harsh weather conditions. And there was just no information coming down. So some coworkers and I began talking about the need for fair representation.
Around that same time, I overheard an unsuspecting coworker actually ask someone in management about unionizing, because they heard about another dispensary doing it. Suffice to say, you don’t want to ask the boss for permission or help when organizing against them.
Yes, you certainly don’t want to let the boss know you are organizing. But once you took the drive public, what was management’s response?
The response was cruel, as expected. They immediately launched an aggressive anti-union campaign, holding captive audience meetings where they would show Powerpoints about the dangers of strikes, fearmongering about union dues, and spreading other misinformation. There is no shortage of anti-union infographics and flyers being circulated. It’s incredibly stressful and intimidating. It feels predatory that the people who write your checks kind of have free reign in how they treat you.
You have talked a little bit about the impact COVID has had on working conditions. What kind of effect has the pandemic had on unionizing?
COVID exposed the fact that most companies don’t look after their workers. One of the most brutal parts has been seeing people coming into work when they’re still sick because they used up their paid time off. It’s gross and barbaric. The response from the company when we had our first positive COVID case was like a chicken running around with its head cut off. There was no clear communication about who tested positive, when was the last time this person worked, or what us employees should do if we were potentially exposed to try to stop the spread and keep each other safe. And not just us, but customers, too.
It could have been a lot worse at our dispensary with the small space we work in, but we did have a few cases, which is obviously not good. There are important decisions being made about our workplace: when we’re going to be expanding to full service, how many can work at a single time, how many customers are allowed in. Having basically no clue about what the day-to-day practices are made it feel all the more urgent that workers should have more input, more democratic control over what’s actually happening at work.
One of the first things we did when we started organizing was make demands around safety issues. For example, we didn’t have a proper break room large enough to keep distanced or any space to properly store personal belongings, further increasing the risk of contamination.
The marijuana industry is not typically associated with unions — certainly not in the way, say, factory workers or truck drivers are. What were the conversations with your coworkers like?
Most people were pretty receptive from the start. If I had to guess why, it’s maybe because we are mainly a younger workforce. At first, it was hard to gauge people’s understanding of what role a union should play or does play in society, but ultimately it wasn’t hard for people to understand that unions protect workers.
I did have one coworker who was fairly skeptical of unionizing, but after contracting COVID, they became a fervent union supporter. They were left out to dry after their PTO ran out, even though they were still experiencing symptoms and given no clear instruction about how to proceed. That is frightening. After this, they spoke extensively with one of the union organizers. They learned the history of what unions have won for workers in this country and understand that unions are a way for workers to advocate for our health and safety, no matter the industry.
I also think we have an advantage in that we’re not the first cannabis dispensary or cultivation center to unionize. Seeing other dispensaries organize was not only an inspiration to do it at our shop, but also an affirmation that it can be done.
There are the bread-and-butter issues that unions fight for, like raises, health care plans, pensions, things of that nature. Do you see other purposes for unions?
Wages and benefits, things like that, are obviously extremely important. I hope jobs in the marijuana industry can be jobs that can support a family and allow you to buy a home. But I think unions have potential beyond just influencing workplace conditions — unions can create politically active individuals.
I would love to get to the point where unions can flex more political muscle for the common good. UFCW lobbied for recreational use getting legalized to start, which is great. But, like I said, we’re at a point now where all of our institutions are failing us, and we can’t do it alone. Building union power is one of the only ways to salvage those institutions. Illinois is a very corrupt state, from Springfield to Chicago. Most of these politicians don’t care. If we don’t have a way to use our leverage as workers and hit them where it hurts — in their pockets, that is — then nothing’s ever going to change.
The marijuana industry is an intensely political industry, for obvious reasons. People are still serving jail time for it. I think we can produce some education on the history of how marijuana has been used to unjustly throw people, particularly people of color, in jail. And still, at this point, it’s a small club just for people who have a lot of money and can afford it.
So I think there is an opportunity, if workers can exercise more control over their workplace, to push for the industry to be something that’s actually a positive force for and representative of our communities.
Unionizing a workplace is not an easy task. A very low percentage of the American workforce is unionized. What does it mean to you to engage in a collective struggle that, as workers, as people typically out of power, we don’t often get the chance to do?
It’s everything to me. I have always believed in the power of unions. Actually, doing this when union power and membership has been on the decline for decades is empowering, because it gives you a sliver of hope that we’ll still have a middle class in this country one day, and that my generation’s quality of life won’t continue to decline.
This is all about solidarity. I can now put meaning to that word that gets thrown around often but sometimes feels hollow when you have no actual real-life experience to connect it to. We are often so stressed and exhausted that it’s hard to connect with anyone, so bonding with my coworkers, beginning to understand that we deal with the same highs and lows, is a special feeling. I’m not the only one in this, and being able to lean on and support other people doing the work required and the momentum that comes from that is an incredible feeling.