Organized labor in the Illinois cannabis world could enter into a new era today. In Joliet, 100 employees at Cresco Labs will vote on whether they will join the United Food and Commercial Workers. Should the yeses outnumber the nos, they will be the first workplace in the state to organize. 

Legal recreational cannabis sales started in the state on January 2, and $3.2 million worth of product was moved by stores on the first day. Though those sales numbers did not remain entirely consistent, demand has been so high that many dispensaries have run out of product. There are estimates that the cannabis industry will ring up $2 to $3 billion dollars, accounting for some 65,000 jobs. 

That’s a lot of wealth to be generated, and many have expressed concerns that cannabis industry profits won’t be appropriately distributed to companies’ employees. 

“We worked to get ourselves into the bill because cannabis jobs can be a career for people,” said Zach Koutsky, legislative and political director for UFCW Local 881 to local news site Chicago Business. “We think we can provide pensions and union-provided health care.”

Political leaders of color have sounded the alarm over the whiteness of the leadership at companies that have been thus far selected for cannabis business licenses in places like Chicago. But in some ways, Illinois is leading when it comes to racial and economic justice measures in the structuring of its cannabis regulations. The city government in Evanstown has linked cannabis tax revenues to a reparations fund for its Black community. 

Like California before it, Illinois has opted to require labor peace agreements, which can ease management-labor relations by discouraging strikes and management interference during organizing drives. Such agreements were declared mandatory in California in 2017 and the state has been the site of multiple successful cannabis labor organizing drives since. 

Cannabis represents a big opportunity for the labor movement, which has struggled in recent decades in the United States. The importance of the Joliet vote did not go unnoticed by progressive leaders outside of Illinois.

“Workers in the cannabis industry deserve respect and fair wages. I encourage Cresco Labs workers in Joliet to vote yes for the union on Tuesday,” tweeted presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders. 

It’s not the first time Illinois cannabis workers have voted on getting a union in the state since cannabis was legalized. Workers at Green Thumbs Industries opted against joining the Teamsters union in December. Employees of the Chicago-based multi-state company had voiced concerns over healthcare costs, retirement benefits, and job safety, but the workforce remained divided on organizing, eventually voting against unionizing 26-30. 

The percentage of United States workers who are represented by a union has declined over the last decades, and oversea factory job relocation — as well as trends towards more temporary employment and contracting instead of full time jobs — have presented further challenges for the labor movement. 

Recent victories for organized labor in marijuana include UFCW’s successful recent organizing campaign at MedMen’s San Jose, California location. Workers at Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Solutions became the first marijuana workers in that state to organize when they joined the UFCW in October. 

At Cresco, company leadership says they are ready for an organized workforce if that’s what their staff wants. “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,” Cresco spokesman Jason Erkes told Chicago Business. “The choice is theirs, and we support them in whatever decision they make.”

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