Medical marijuana workers in Pittsburgh look to unions to shore up shaky industry | Pittsburgh City Paper

Medical marijuana workers in Pittsburgh look to unions to shore up shaky industry

click to enlarge Medical marijuana workers in Pittsburgh look to unions to shore up shaky industry
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Trulieve in the North Side

Medical marijuana dispensaries in Pittsburgh have been hit by recent layoffs in line with the rest of Pennsylvania, but rising unionization efforts are attempting to protect workers and stabilize the industry.

In the past year, multiple Pittsburgh-area medical marijuana businesses have laid off employees as buyouts and other uncertainties shake up the industry. Trulieve, which has locations across several states, including multiple in the Pittsburgh area, laid off an unknown number of employees in its McKeesport location in December, according to TribLIVE. Hanging Gardens, a smaller-sized Johnstown business that previously had about 100 employees, laid off 50 of them in July, and is suing the state for making the business environment worse for independent dispensaries, according to The Tribune-Democrat.

Almost exactly seven years ago, Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana, but now, industry leaders say, the state’s reluctance to legalize recreational use appears to be holding back progress.

As the industry struggles, the largest companies buy out the smallest — a trend that can be seen across Pennsylvania. As reported in August by MJBizDaily, a business-focused news outlet about marijuana, “multistate operators are gearing up for the prospect of adult-use legalization and buying smaller, independent marijuana businesses that are struggling and laying off employees in an increasingly crowded market.”

At the same time, however, workers are unionizing to secure their jobs and better work conditions. CannTech and Trulieve workers are among the hundreds unionized with UFCW Local 1776, which also represents other medical marijuana industry workers across the state. Over the past few years, the number of unionized workers in the industry continues to grow, according to Wendell Young, president of the union group. And one of the ways the union helps is in securing against layoffs.

“Other positions can be identified instead of just showing you the door, where in the non-union place, they’ll just lay off who they want, when they want, regardless of qualifications, experience, seniority,” Young tells Pittsburgh City Paper.

Workers are struggling to form unions amid a fluctuating industry in which smaller firms are at constant risk of buyouts.

“While it’s been a number of years since the law was approved, it’s still very much in its infancy, and … quite limited here in Pennsylvania because it’s medical marijuana only,” Young says. “And so we’re often organizing at a point where a facility’s just started hiring people and there aren’t that many workers, and they haven’t been there that long.”

click to enlarge Medical marijuana workers in Pittsburgh look to unions to shore up shaky industry
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham

And even though it’s still a budding industry, it could be completely changed by legislation that legalizes marijuana for adult recreational use. It’s an effort that’s long been supported by progressive politicians such as U.S. Senator John Fetterman, who previously served as the state’s Lieutenant Governor, and Summer Lee, a U.S. Congresswoman representing parts of the Pittsburgh area.

State legislators in February circulated memos in both the House and Senate hinting at legislation that would legalize marijuana recreationally and have it be sold exclusively at state-run stores in an attempt to stave off corporate control of marijuana sales. But it’s also possible that the state would take the more conventional route by legalizing recreational use and throwing the sale of marijuana to the private sector.

“When that happens, you’re gonna have more actors coming into the space, you’re gonna have more buying and selling of these companies,” Young tells City Paper. “It could be very turbulent for workers, but with a union contract, it actually helps bring [security], stability and consistency.”

In some parts of the state, unionization has already shown itself to benefit workers. A few years ago, a Scranton-based woman named Ashley Batista abandoned hotel work after early-pandemic layoffs and instead turned to the medical marijuana industry, then deemed an essential business. Batista soon became a shop steward in the existing union represented by UFCW 1776 at a dispensary called Jushi. She’s seen her union improve pay and healthcare, and maintain hours for workers, so she feels secure in the future of her employment.

At the same time, she knows there’s a lot of work to be done to improve conditions for industry workers across the state.

“I feel like all these employers are gonna cut hours, cut pay, take people’s benefits,” Batista tells CP. “I feel like it’s everywhere all over Pennsylvania.”

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