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Major pot production facility to vote on unionizing About 100 workers at Cresco Labs in Joliet are eligible to vote tomorrow in an early test of pro-labor provisions in Illinois' weed law. Will other pot employees follow?

Crain's Chicago Business

Tuesday, January 14, 2020  |  Article  |  John Pletz

Recreational Marijuana

Count organized labor among those who see opportunity in the recreational weed business.  

About 100 of the 130 workers at a Cresco Labs cultivation facility in Joliet are eligible to vote tomorrow on whether to join the United Food & Commercial Workers union.

It’s the second time a union has tried to organize workers at a cannabis company since lawmakers voted to make Illinois the 11th state to allow recreational use of marijuana. An election last month by the Teamsters to organize workers at a Rock Island cultivation center run by Green Thumb Industries narrowly failed, 26-30.

Weed is estimated to become a $2 billion to $3 billion industry in Illinois, with up to 65,000 jobs at cannabis companies themselves, as well as ancillary businesses. Lawmakers made sure labor would be part of it, by including “labor peace” agreements as a criteria for awarding new licenses.

“We think this is the first of many (elections) to come,” said Zach Koutsky, legislative and political director for Local 881 of the UFCW, which represents about 34,000 workers, mostly in the grocery industry. “We see this as setting the tone going forward for the industry. We think workers should have every right and ability to stand up for themselves and their co-workers.”

The vote involves one facility at a company that has three cultivation centers and five dispensaries, with plans to open five more. But Cresco touts the highest market share in the state and is one of the biggest companies in the industry.

"We support our employees’ right to be represented if they wish, while also strongly advocating for their right to vote in a secret ballot election,” said Cresco spokesman Jason Erkes. “The choice is theirs, and we support them in whatever decision they make.”

Tuesday’s election will be followed closely by labor groups, as well as other companies.

“Recreational cannabis is an opportunity to expand unions. This is a new industry,” said Bob Bruno, a professor at the School of Labor & Employment Relations at the University of Illinois. “Expectations are high that this will be largely a unionized sector that will hire a lot of folks.”

Several states have written organized-labor provisions into cannabis laws, including California, which requires companies with at least 20 employees to have union agreements. Illinois didn’t go quite that far. In awarding new cannabis industry licenses, it’s offering credit worth up to 2 percent to companies with “labor peace” agreements in place.

Koutsky says 1,600 of the nearly 4,000 applications the state received for 75 new dispensaries had “labor peace” agreements.

UCFW is one of several unions that plan to organize workers. SEIU covers security workers, Teamsters will cover transport workers, and Operating Engineers will cover maintenance workers.

“We worked to get ourselves into the bill because cannabis jobs can be a career for people,” Koutsky said. “We think we can provide pensions and union-provided health care.”