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ANALYSIS: Cannabis Workers Make Retail Sector a New Union Haven

March 17, 2022, 4:59 PM

Unions attempting to organize retail-industry workplaces won more elections in 2021 than they have in almost 20 years. And they owe that surprising success mostly to cannabis workers.

The National Labor Relations Board’s year-end election figures show that retail is the only industry group where unions are organizing workers much more successfully than they did before the pandemic began. Retail unions prevailed in 60 representation elections overseen by the NLRB last year, up from 37 in 2020 and 34 in 2019.

The proliferation of cannabis growers and dispensaries has made this trend possible, buoyed by state marijuana laws that contain baked-in protections for unions seeking to organize there.

A search of Bloomberg Law’s NLRB elections tracker shows that cannabis workers voted in 26 NLRB representation elections in 2021 and sided with the union in 18 of them. That’s a net increase of 14 wins over 2020 and 16 wins over 2019, accounting for almost two-thirds (62%) of the retail industry’s unionization gains during this two-year period.

Unions like the UFCW and the Teamsters are increasingly targeting these workplaces, providing a reminder to labor lawyers that new-economy businesses can still provide fertile ground for organizing campaigns, even amid decades of decline in union membership nationwide.

Illinois, which instituted a labor peace requirement when it legalized recreational marijuana in 2020, is where most of 2021’s organizing action took place: Thirteen of unions’ 18 cannabis-industry wins occurred in that newly altered state.

Manufacturing and construction were the only other industries to see similar (although much smaller) gains from 2019 to 2021. Unions elsewhere have yet to regain their pre-pandemic footing.

Overall, the NLRB figures show that labor’s organizing activity is still lagging behind its pre-pandemic pace. The 759 total union wins at the NLRB in 2021, while a step up from 2020’s mark of 655, remains far below 2019’s total of 940, making last year the second-slowest organizing year since Bloomberg Law started tracking NLRB elections in 1990.

Full details of the NLRB’s 2021 figures, with five-year comparisons, are available in Bloomberg Law’s NLRB Election Statistics report. Subscribers can research election records directly with the NLRB Elections Tracker on Labor PLUS.

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