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Illinois Unions Make Nice in Push to Represent Cannabis Workers

March 13, 2020, 2:31 PM

Four Illinois unions have agreed not to compete with one another to represent employees in the state’s new recreational cannabis industry. The move is an effort to avoid clashes among the labor organizations.

Illinois labor groups participated in the push to legalize recreational pot in the state. After Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) in June signed into law a bill making Illinois the 10th state to license businesses to sell recreational cannabis and the 11th state to legalize possessing limited amounts of recreational cannabis, the unions met to discuss how they could collaborate to represent pot workers. The workers include plant growers, drivers of vehicles carrying cannabis products and cash, facility maintenance engineers, and retail sales staff at dispensaries.

Because unions in some states have clashed over which unions should represent which workers, Illinois branches of national labor organizations drafted a jurisdictional agreement identifying the unions that could pursue representing specific classifications of workers. The unions hope the accord will ensure that they don’t seek the same coteries of workers as the Illinois recreational cannabis industry grows.

The state’s cannabis industry could employ as many as 63,400 workers by 2025, a report by Denver-based New Frontier Data concluded. If that happens, the number of employees in the state’s cannabis industry in five years, for example, will be higher than the number of accountants and auditors employed in the state in 2019, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Zach Koutsky, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 881 legislative and political director, said in an interview that at least half of those employees eventually could be covered by union contracts.

Division of Labor

Using jurisdictional agreements may be novel in the cannabis industry, but they’ve been more regularly used in more established work forces, such as the construction trades. The agreements group workers together by contractual terms, license status, or by the types of workers unions have traditionally represented. The agreements attempt to ensure several unions don’t try to organize the same workers, though their wording can be broad, overlap is possible, and disputes can occur. Also helpful in resolving jurisdictional disputes are umbrella groups such as the AFL-CIO, which can try to resolve disputes among their affiliated unions.

Uncertainty can arise when it’s not clear which union’s employees are entitled to perform the work. For example, disputes have arisen in the past where the Teamsters have a collective bargaining agreement that covers the transportation of materials to a job site, but it’s not clear if the Teamsters or another union are entitled to put those materials in place, Matthew Luzadder, a Kelley Drye & Warren LLP partner and cannabis law specialist, said.

Unions in Illinois, a comparatively amicable state for labor organizations, haven’t always confined themselves to their traditional areas of representation or jurisdiction, particularly when a new industry opens up, said Martin Malin, Chicago-Kent College of Law professor. “To have multiple unions targeting a new industry does not surprise me at all,” he said.

“It happens. I don’t know if it happens a lot. But it’s definitely not unheard of, let’s put it that way” George Voegele, a Cozen O’Connor PC member who advises employers in employment matters, said.

Illinois also has seen unions raid each other. The Illinois Nurses Association, for example, had represented nurses at the University of Chicago Medical Center for years when National Nurses United approached that bargaining unit and subsequently petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold a new election. National Nurses United has represented the nurses since 2010.

To avoid worker poaching and other acrimony, four unions that intend to represent Illinois cannabis industry workers agreed to designate specific unions to specific worker groups.

Koutsky’s UFCW Local 881 will have jurisdiction over cannabis cultivation centers, craft growers, infusers, dispensaries, and lab-testing organizations. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 will represent security personnel at those locations. The Teamsters Joint Council No. 25 will cover employees transporting cannabis, associated products, and cash. And the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 399 will represent operational services workers maintaining the buildings used by the industry.

“This [cannabis industry] is a whole new area, and these unions were smart to get out ahead of it and try to set up a regime that would work for them and their members and hopefully the businesses in that area too,” Voegele said.

Smooth Going, So Far

The agreement to date has generally been a success, according to union officials. “There have been no problems,” said Beniamino Capellupo, SEIU No. 1 executive director. “There are plenty of workers to organize in our respective industries. We don’t need to be dancing in other peoples’ industries.”

Other union officials cited their experience representing certain job classifications or their reputations with employers to explain why they think union poaching will not be a problem. “We generally don’t represent people who work outside of our jurisdiction because, at the end of the day, we can provide the most success to someone who does what we do,” said Pat O’Gorman, IUOE Local 399 organizer. That jurisdiction is what the union’s training program focuses on to improve the skills of its members, he said.

It’s possible that as the industry develops, today’s relative peace could be shattered. Different local branches of a single union, for instance, may try to represent some workers. And unions not currently active in the state’s cannabis industry could attempt to represent workers in the future.

“Will there be additional issues that will pop up in one, five, 10 years that labor will have to think though and work through? Yeah, absolutely,” said Jake Lewis, Chicago Federation of Labor spokesman. “It’s certainly hoped that any jurisdiction issue can be resolved in a way that benefits the entire labor movement.”

—With assistance from Joyce Cutler in San Francisco and Adrianne Appel in Boston

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Joyce in Chicago at sjoyce@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tina May at tmay@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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