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Organized labor scores key victories in North Bay cannabis sector

Organized labor has scored significant victories in the North Bay cannabis sector, setting the stage for more gains as the multibillion-dollar industry continues to grow following legalization.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 5 on Monday obtained recognition of 80 manufacturing workers at CannaCraft in Santa Rosa. On Wednesday, 20 members at Sonoma Lab Works in Santa Rosa ratified their first contract, which marked the first time that has occurred at a California marijuana laboratory.

“It has been a very busy week,” said Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for UFCW Local 5, the Hayward-based union that represents about 500 cannabis workers across Northern California. “There’s more to come.”

The local progress has come as renewed labor organization ramped up across the country during the coronavirus pandemic, most notably with the unsuccessful unionizing drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

But California unions looking to organize in cannabis have an advantage under Proposition 64, the 2016 ballot initiative that legalized recreational marijuana use. The referendum required that any cannabis businesses with 20 or more employees in the sector have to be neutral during a union organizing drive and not engage in efforts like Amazon’s high-profile campaign in Alabama.

In fact, both local businesses were complimentary about the process.

“We’re pro-worker and pro-union. Unions are about democratizing a workplace. I think it’s all good,” said Tiffany Devitt, chief of government and consumer affairs for CannaCraft.

“We are pleased to have our employees join UFCW Local 5 and fully support their decision,” said Darius Anderson, CEO of Kenwood Investments, in a statement. Kenwood Investment along with other investors acquired the Sonoma Lab Works in January 2019. Anderson is majority owner of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat, North Bay Business Journal and other local publications.

The UFCW — which has been among the most aggressive unions in the state in organizing the sector — has focused mostly on retail cannabis outlets. The two local drives mark the next step in organizing other parts of the state industry that was estimated to bring in about $4.4 billion in legal sales last year. Under California law, all cannabis has to pass specific testing requirements before it can be sold to the public, and that has given rise to specialty labs that conduct assessments on such factors as moisture content to heavy metals to ensure quality.

At Sonoma Lab Works, those workers include scientists, engineers and office staff. The contract gave the workers annual wage increases and increased the vacation allowances and holidays that they will get off as well as $500 bonus, Araby said.

“It’s a big deal … It’s a very nascent industry right now and we are going to work with them to create the highest levels of testing,” he said of Sonoma Lab Works.

CannaCraft represents even a greater opportunity for the union as it employs 250 people and also cultivates and distributes cannabis. The company is known primarily for its manufacturing process of taking cannabis flowers and converting them into oils and liquids that can be used products such as vape pens, chocolate and drinks. The union had a majority of those workers signing cards stipulating that they wanted to be represented by a union.

“We spent about four to six weeks going out and talking to workers on site at their homes and were able to get a majority,” Araby said.

More organizing will go on in retail for UFCW, but that will be largely focused in mostly larger population areas of the Bay Area. Cultivation will be a priority, but a focus will likely be in more mature areas of cannabis growing such Humboldt and Mendocino counties, he said. Sonoma County will be a focus of manufacturing, testing and distribution. Local 5 also represents about 40 drivers for Fume in Cotati who deliver cannabis to at-home consumers, Araby said.

“Both CannaCraft and Sonoma Lab Works we see as not the traditional labor-management confrontation,” he said. “We are going to represent the workers. But we also see our destinies tied together to grow a legitimate industry.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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