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News from EPI The cannabis industry could be a model of good jobs—if policymakers strengthen workers’ right to unionize

Key findings from a new Economic Policy Institute report show that unionization is crucial to ensuring that the emerging cannabis industry provides safe and good-paying jobs.

The report examines potential outcomes of allowing the cannabis industry to adopt harmful “low-road” practices common in other industries versus putting in place “high-road” structures—specifically, supporting workers’ ability to organize—that ensure not only better pay and benefits but higher standards and job quality.

Cannabis processing workers could, on average, make an estimated $8,690 more in annual wages under a high-road scenario than under a low-road scenario, based on the union wage premium in manufacturing jobs similar to cannabis processing. Cannabis cultivation workers could make $7,030 more and cannabis retail workers could make $2,810 more in annual wages under a high-road scenario.

“Unions’ ability to set high job quality standards in much of manufacturing offers an important lesson for cannabis. Though lawmakers often celebrate manufacturing as a source of well-paying jobs and middle-class opportunity, what they are really celebrating is the labor movement’s historical success in setting and sustaining job quality norms for broad swaths of that sector,” said David Cooper, report coauthor and senior economic analyst and deputy director of EPI’s Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN). “Similar norms and standards could also be established in cannabis if workers in the industry have ample bargaining power and structures, like unions.”

Establishing high-road structures within the industry would help repair the harm caused by the criminalization of communities of color—predominantly Black and Latinx communities—in the war on drugs, because unions narrow racial wage gaps and have historically provided dependable pathways into the middle class.

Several recent federal cannabis legalization bills include provisions to ensure investments from cannabis revenues and disproportionate business licenses go to communities of color, yet there has been little discussion of job quality for cannabis workers.

In the analysis, the authors show unions have a stronger wage-boosting effect for workers of color in cannabis proxy jobs.

“Ensuring equitable access to cannabis business licenses and proper supports for entrepreneurs is essential, but insufficient. No matter how many business owners of color the industry creates, there will be many multiples more rank-and-file workers of color in the industry,” said Cooper. “Policies must be put in place at the outset to ensure that cannabis employees share equitably in the growth of the industry, with good-paying, safe, and community-sustaining jobs.”

The report highlights labor peace agreements (LPAs)—which prevent union busting by employers in exchange for workers’ pledge not to strike—as a viable means of protecting workers’ organizing rights. Of the 36 states that have legalized either medical or recreational cannabis, six states (Calif., N.Y., N.J., Ill., Pa., and Va.) have language in their cannabis statutes that either encourage or require the adoption of LPAs for licensed cannabis businesses.

If structures are not put in place, cannabis jobs could end up being the same low-quality jobs that are pervasive in analogous industries—retail and agriculture. The authors contend that the best means of ensuring that workers in cannabis have a voice on the job and can share in the rewards of a newly legalized industry is to safeguard and strengthen the fundamental rights of workers to organize collectively in a union.

“As cannabis is legalized, there is an opportunity to create an industry of high-quality, middle-class jobs, but only if lawmakers enact policies to ensure this happens. The best way to do this is to encourage unionization in the cannabis industry,” said Sebastian Hickey, coauthor of the report and research assistant on EPI’s EARN team. “Lawmakers should follow the lead of the six states that already either require or encourage adoption of labor peace agreements for cannabis business licenses.”