Pot Purveyor Leads Charge to Unionize His Employees (Corrected)

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By Paige Smith

A cannabis retailer led efforts to have his employees join a union in an unusual labor organizing drive in Washington.

“Personally, I don’t know anything else. I grew up in a union house,” Ryan Kunkel told Bloomberg Law. “It creates another layer of legitimacy and safety” for workers in a competitive industry, he said.

Kunkel is the CEO of Have a Heart, a chain of cannabis dispensaries in the Evergreen State. He reached a labor contract with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 amicably and swiftly, both sides said.

The contract is part of a larger push to unionize workers in the cannabis industry, as more states roll out legislation that allows marijuana use.

“The idea of organizing new industries is both exciting and challenging at the same time,” UFCW Local 21 spokesperson Tom Geiger told Bloomberg Law.

It’s not often that a union effort gets support from an employer, he said.

“He, as the employer, was very unusual in his behavior in that he was supportive of the unionization effort,” Geiger said. “There was a mutually agreeable interest from the get-go.”

Have a Heart and Local 21 signed a contract on Aug. 24 that covers 134 employees at the chain’s five locations. The starting pay is $15 an hour with annual raises guaranteed. The deal includes a provision that ensures new workers are covered when Kunkel opens more stores. He has plans to expand to other states.

Geiger called Kunkel’s union commitment on expansion “a great advance for workers, and it provides some assurance.”

Partnering with the UFCW gives Have a Heart brand name recognition and lobbying power, he said.

Uncharted Territory

The push to unionize recreational marijuana retail workers is fairly new, as the industry expands beyond selling the product only to authorized medical users. But the national branch of the UFCW has been involved for more than 15 years, Jeff Ferro, the union’s cannabis division director, told Bloomberg Law.

Cannabis use is still illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, but 30 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the drug in some manner. Still, the discrepancy between state and federal law leaves lingering questions.

Unionizing employees in the cannabis industry while federal law prohibits sales could still raise alarms for employers and their employees, Ron Kramer, a labor and employment attorney with Seyfarth Shaw, told Bloomberg Law.

“It’s a concern that any employer would have, but by the same token, I think the NLRB would likely more focus on regulating the organization of employees,” Kramer said.

It is not the NLRB’s mission to be overly concerned about cooperating with separate federal agencies that may target employees for engaging in federal illegal activity, he said.

The union has received very little pushback from law enforcement officials, Ferro said. “Our members are very in tune” with their legal responsibilities on the job, which law enforcement officials appreciate, he said.

Opportunity Abounds

Beyond providing lobbying muscle, national unions can offer consistency in what can be a patchwork of state regulations, Ferro said. A national health-care plan and pensions can be accessible to UFCW members as the company expands beyond a single state’s lines.

The National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade organization, couldn’t share its stance on unionization, but a spokesperson expressed optimism about the UFCW’s efforts.

“NCIA is still developing our position on unionization,” spokesperson Morgan Fox told Bloomberg Law. “However, this is a sign that the industry is really coming into its own and being taken seriously by the labor sector as a major area of employment opportunity.”

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