After receiving national attention from progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders, workers at Cresco Labs’ Joliet, Illinois facility voted to organize with the United Food and Commercial Workers on Tuesday. The decision makes them the first cannabis workers in the state to have a union. 

In a press statement, the workers’ new local president, UFCW Local 881’s Steve Powell said that his organization “is proud of these workers and looks forward to standing with them to negotiate a fair and just contract that will improve their working conditions.”

The Cresco workforce voted 58-32 to join UFCW. 

Cresco Labs employs 562 employees in Illinois, and has two cultivation centers in the state as well as three currently operational dispensaries. It has plans to open five more retail locations. All total, it owns 23 production centers and 22 retail locations, with 1,180 employees. 

Zach Koutsky, the legislative and political director for UFCW said that the company’s success, coupled with its relatively low pay structure, convinced workers that a union would be beneficial.

“The wages for such a profitable company are low,” he told a local news publication. “They have health care provided by the company, but it’s very expensive.”

The drive attracted its fair share of attention, even eliciting a tweet of support from Democratic Party presidential nominee hopeful Sanders. The first cannabis worker organizing drive in Illinois last year failed by a close vote, even as an industry opens up in the state that could be worth $2 to $3 billion dollars and generate 65,000 jobs. 

Organized Labor in the Cannabis

Many are hoping that the Cresco Labs victory is only the start for organized labor in the state’s marijuana industry. Indeed, no less than three national labor unions in addition to UFCW are currently looking to represent various sectors of its cannabis workers. That would be the Service Employees International Union, who have been approaching security employees, the Operating Engineers and their maintenance workers campaign, and the Teamsters, who have begun organizing cannabis transportation workers.

Such organizing campaigns, as well as the one at Cresco, are aided by the fact that Illinois joined California in writing labor peace agreements into its state cannabis regulations. Such accords require management to allow union organizing campaigns to proceed without interference. Cresco complied with its agreement, issuing statements like the one publicized after the union’s victory that it would work with whatever decision its workers chose. 

“We look forward to continuing to provide all of our employees a fair package of employee wages, health and retirement benefits and an environment that is a great place to work,” wrote the company in a statement. 

UFCW already represents over 10,000 cannabis workers in 14 states, including California, Washington, and Pennsylvania. The union began its organizing efforts in the industry in 2007, back before legalization was a twinkling in the eye of many of the states in which it now pushes for cannabis workers’ labor rights. Many see organized labor as an important counterbalance when it comes to the creeping dominance of large corporations in the marijuana business.

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