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Monday, August 7, 2023

Rhode Island marijuana industry becomes fertile ground for unionization

Pot bosses resist efforts to prevent labor strife

By Christopher Shea, Rhode Island Current

As a patient-care specialist at Warwick’s RISE Dispensary, Bruce Botelho recommends strains to customers and oversees purchases at a job he said initially provided good benefits and a friendly atmosphere.

“It’s a really fun job, the people I work with are great,” he said. 

Yet things soured quickly after Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries took over the former Summit Medical Compassion Center in 2021, he said.

While there were few changes at first, Botelho said employee discounts were reduced after the transition to recreational sales earlier this year. Then hours for full and part-time workers were cut without warning. 

“It feels sometimes like we’re actively being punished for choosing to work here,” he said.

It was that final decision by Green Thumb to cut hours that spurred Botelho to unionize his workplace in May. Within a month, workers at RISE voted 50-6 to form a union with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 328.

“It’s very rare that you can get everyone on board so quickly,” said RISE worker Helen Saad. “That also speaks to how poorly things have been run and how unhappy staff is.”

RISE isn’t the first cannabis business to organize in Rhode Island. Ocean State Cultivation Center, also based in Warwick, partnered with UFCW in 2020 and Portsmouth-based Greenleaf Compassion Care Center joined in 2021, ratifying its first contract last year. 

Since unionization, Santos said Greenleaf workers have seen “gains in terms of wages and benefits.” Included in the inaugural two-year contract are paid vacations, the opportunity to earn tips, and protected time and a half on Sunday.

UFCW Field Organizer Mike Santos said other cannabis workers have reached out to the union on how they can organize their workplace. Still, the number of unionized workplaces remains small relative to the seven licensed compassion centers and 62 cultivators in Rhode Island. 

Under the 2022 Rhode Island Cannabis Act, the state’s newly-formed Cannabis Control Commission can grant 24 more retail licenses.

Why the push?

Michael Yelnosky, professor of law at Roger Williams University, said the push to unionize the cannabis industry is not at a surprise.

“I think as a general matter this is a group of workers that seems to be inclined toward organization,” he said. “Particularly when they look around and see that there is some nationwide, regional, and more local energy these days.”

Yelnosky said while cannabis may be viewed as a progressive industry, work conditions are not always so.

“When push comes to shove and workers are in a workplace thinking about their actual on the ground wages and terms and conditions of employment, they may voice some desires and if they’re not met, they may start to look elsewhere,” he said.

It’s a feeling Saad said she knew all too well before RISE’s unionization. 

She said her hours were abruptly cut from 40 a week to 33 in May — just as she placed a $2,600 down payment on an apartment.

“It’s not right and it’s not fair,” Saad said. “Would I have to find another job? What was I going to do? I had to make sure I had enough money to pay electricity and rent.”

In a statement emailed Tuesday, a Green Thumb spokesperson said the company “respects the rights of our employees, including the fundamental right to freedom of association. 

“We look forward to productive, good-faith bargaining toward a new contract with the Green Thumb employees now represented by the UFCW.” 

But the statement also denied the employees’ claims, saying: “We have not reduced the hours available to employees at our Warwick store. As it relates to the loyalty program, we have not eliminated any employee benefits — the policy is standard across our employee base.” 

Labor Peace Agreements

Yelnosky said UFCW organized the cannabis industry so quickly because of “labor peace agreements,” which require that an employer agree not to oppose unionization and the union agrees to not strike or otherwise stop work.

Rhode Island, California, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have all enacted laws supporting unions in the cannabis industry. Massachusetts did not include agreements as part of its cannabis legislation passed in 2016.

Some agreements require employers to remain neutral in relation to organization efforts and that unions must be allowed on their properties.

The Rhode Island statute only requires that the union agree not to engage in picketing, work-stoppages, boycotts, and “any other economic interference with the entity.” 

The agreement is currently the subject of a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month by Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Rhode Island U.S. District Court. Greenelaf argues labor peace agreements violate the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution as well as the National Labor Relations Act.

Yelnosky said the court typically sides with existing federal law and that Greenleaf does not have a strong case.

“This doesn’t strike me as a particularly problematic requirement,” he said. “Rhode Island didn’t go whole hog on this.”

And just because a state has a labor peace agreement as law, workers are required to unionize.

“This is just a requirement that until the employees have expressed their preference, certain weapons are off the table,” Yelnosky said. “And nobody’s being forced to agree to anything in a collective bargaining agreement if workers decide to unionize.”

Perhaps the biggest way unions can grow in the cannabis industry, he said, is through successful contracts.

“Once it’s clear the UFCW has power and it’s clear employees are likely to learn about the unionization drive at the other place, then it’s really hard for employers to fight off the union,” Yelnosky said.



Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.