Ascend Montclair workers ratify cannabis dispensary labor agreement

Gabrielle Saulsbery//March 14, 2022//

Ascend Montclair workers ratify cannabis dispensary labor agreement

Gabrielle Saulsbery//March 14, 2022//

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Ascend Wellness Holdings in Montclair

Workers at Ascend Montclair Dispensary have ratified a three-year labor agreement with the Cannabis Engineers Extractors & Distributors Local 420, International Union of Journeymen and Allied Trades. This labor agreement is the dispensary’s first and it covers approximately 22 employees who work at the company’s medical cannabis dispensary in Essex County.

CEED Local 420, IUJAT was established solely to represent cannabis workers in New Jersey. IUJAT is a national labor union dating back to 1874, nearly a decade before the formation of the American Federation of Labor.

The contract includes three annual 3% wage increases that, when compounded, are valued at 9.27% over the life of the contract. It also includes access to a more comprehensive health care plan that decreases copays and deductibles without an increase in overall costs, and a contract wage re-opener contingent on Ascend being awarded any future license for recreational cannabis operations. Workers will earn more paid time-off based on a new seniority schedule, and Ascend budtenders now have a say in their workplace conditions and are just cause employees with access to a grievance procedure and regular contract negotiations.

“CEED Local 420 members are dedicated to ensuring New Jersey’s medical cannabis patients can access safe and quality products. Our budtenders contribute greatly to Ascend’s success and were with us every step of the way at the negotiating table. With annual wage increases, a contract re-opener, and significantly improved benefits for workers and their families, this contract will set a standard not just at Ascend but also for New Jersey’s burgeoning medical cannabis industry,” said Connor Shaw, business agent and legislative director of IUJAT.

“It is crucial that workers in the fast-growing cannabis industry are afforded the protections and benefits of a labor contract and have a say in their workplace conditions,” Shaw said.
When Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge became the first alternative treatment center in the state to unionize in 2016, employees joined the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 152, recognized as the official cannabis labor union under the AFL-CIO.

Now going into its third collective bargaining agreement with the UFCW, Local 152 Representative Hugh Giordano said there’s “lots of good stuff in [GSD’s agreement]. They get good wages, they get good health care, as the company grows so do their wages. Garden State, I have to give them full credit, they led the way on that.”

GSD was recently acquired by multi-state operator Ayr Wellness, which works with another UFCW local on collective bargaining in Pennsylvania. Another New Jersey ATC, Verano’s Zen Leaf, finalized its collective bargaining agreement with UFCW in February, which at the time made it the state’s second unionized shop.

The right to unionize is baked into the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act as it is in the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act. The law requires each cannabis business licensee to sign a labor peace agreement with a bona fide labor organization, with parties entering into an agreement that the employer will not oppose unionization and the union, if and when it organizes the workforce, agrees to not strike or otherwise stop work.

While the LPA does not guarantee unionization, it creates a clear path toward unionizing, if the employees see fit. It also ensures that, in the case of medicinal cannabis, the supply of medicine to patients will not be upset by pickets outside their ATCs.

“This principle is importantly reflected in the awards given out on Oct. 15. Of the many things that the CRC asked winners to confirm was that they successfully maintained the LPA, and they [reiterated] that maintenance of that LPA is required for the award,” Foley Hoag LLP Counsel Mike McQueeny explained.

Workers’ rights are included in the laws here in large part, according to McQueeny, because of Giordano. Before legalization, if you found yourself at a city council meeting or legislative hearing with cannabis talks on the table, he was sure to be there there. His advocacy work spanned over a decade.

“When Gov. Corzine signed into law the day before his departure, the UFCW was involved. Even during the Christie administration, which was very an-ti-cannabis, we were talking to medical groups, having these conversations,” Giordano said.

Although the process of unionizing is similar regardless of industry, the cannabis industry is different than, say, cafeteria workers or factory workers in one way: cannabis remains federally illegal, and federally scheduled. These factors presented challenges initially when the UFCW moved to represent cannabis workers, though Giordano said things are much easier now.

“When there were no laws in the state level, you had to go to the federal level. And that was hard because you had attorneys saying, ‘I don’t know if I can represent that client,’ and the National Labor Relations Board didn’t know what to do. It was a problem. It held back the ability for workers to get their day in court be-cause of this issue or that issue. Companies loved it because they used postponement to hold off unionization in a sense, but it’s gotten better. The NLRB put an advisory out saying that they do cover cannabis workers. And now that the state has their laws in place, it makes it that much easier,” he said.

“LPAs make it that much easier,” he added. “If the workers choose to do it, it gets done. It’s not held up with some frivolous claim at the federal level. Where the law is weak on the federal level, it takes state leadership to fill in. New Jersey has done that, with labor peace agreements and project labor agreements [for contrac-tors].”