When Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge became the first alternative treatment center in the state to unionize in 2016, employees became part of 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. And a second New Jersey ATC, Verano’s Zen Leaf, has almost finalized its collective bargaining agreement with UFCW, which will make 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 principal 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 anti-cannabis, we were talking to medical groups, having these conversations,” Giordano said.
A decade ago, Giordano’s attempts to get unions involved in the cannabis conversation mostly elicited laughter.
“[But I saw] what was happening out west, how workers were being treated. Workers getting paid in product. Product can’t pay the bills. You go on the street and sell it, it puts you in jeopardy. And it puts the license in jeopardy. There was rampant sexual harassment I remember reading about, and migrant workers working in fields – those people were probably enslaved. I saw the federal government arresting legal workers, sitting them outside with zip ties [around their wrists]. I saw these things, and how people were being treated, and it bothered me as a labor representative” Giordano said.
“That’s what got me into saying we need to care about the people in the industry. There’s going to be thousands of folks not getting what they deserve. So why not start a conversation now? That way we build an industry that’s moral and ethical. Then we don’t have to fight for it, it’s part of the seed planted in the ground. And that’s what we did.”
There was a little movement out west for cannabis industry employees to organize, but back east, Giordano “put the pedal to the metal” calling, texting, and talking about it incessantly to everyone. He credits medical cannabis patients for keeping him pushing, and organizations like Ken Wolski’s Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, which was an integral piece in his own cannabis education.
McQueeny offered that Giordano “may be the hardest working person in New Jersey.”
“He was there at all the meetings to speak on behalf of [potential] operators within that town, and Hugh has put himself in the middle of a lot of these conversations that involve the moving parts of the cannabis industry in New Jersey,” McQueeny said.
Bad management got Giordano into union work. At 17, employed on a non-union job, he unionized it, because “some big guys did some bad things. I say I didn’t create me, management created me.” At 23 he was hired by the UFCW, and 14 years later his passion is obvious.
“I went through it, so I don’t mind fighting for it. I know what it’s like to be the worker leading the charge,” he said. “That’s why the LPA is so great. I know what it’s like to be somewhere without one, where companies come in and hire big attorneys to come in and tell employees why they shouldn’t unionize. It’s one of the nastiest processes.”
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 because 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 contractors].”