As more states and districts around the country push for legalization, the cannabis industry has exploded in recent years, with researchers estimating that the industry could generate over $70 billion in sales by 2030. While investors and business owners have dollar signs in their eyes, though, it is the everyday employees, from growers and packers to bud tenders, who are making the industry run. But the vast vast majority of those workers are not reaping the benefits of these booming profits; in fact, many cannabis workers around the country report insufficient pay, overwork and burnout, disrespect and mistreatment from management, all while having to navigate changing customer needs, state and federal regulations, and top-down decisions from executives and company founders that are handed down with little to no input from the actual workers who know the industry best. That is why we are seeing a simultaneous explosion of organizing efforts by cannabis workers themselves.
TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with a panel of workers and organizers from the state of Illinois who have been fighting to unionize with the Teamsters and improve the cannabis industry for themselves, their coworkers, and their customers. Panelists include: Ami Schneider, a worker at Enlightened Dispensary in Schaumburg, Illinois, and a member of Teamsters Local 777; Ryan “Fro” Frohlich, a worker at Zen Leaf in Chicago, Illinois, and a member of Teamsters Local 777; Chris Smith, organizer and business agent for Teamsters Local 777; Jim Glimco, president and principal officer for Teamsters Local 777.
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. The Real News is an independent, viewer supported, nonprofit media network, which means we don’t do ads and we don’t take corporate cash and we don’t do paywalls. So we need each one of you to become a supporter of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage of the voices and issues you care about most. So please head on over to therealnews.com/support and become a supporter of our work today, it really makes a difference.
As more states and districts around the country push for legalization, including here in our home state of Maryland, the cannabis industry has exploded in recent years, with researchers estimating that the industry could generate over $70 billion in sales by 2030.
But while investors and business owners have dollar signs in their eyes, it is the everyday employees from growers and packers to budtenders who are making the industry run. But the vast, vast majority of those workers are not reaping the benefits of these booming profits, with many cannabis workers around the country reporting low pay, overwork and burnout, disrespect and mistreatment from management, all while having to navigate changing customer needs, state and federal regulations, and top-down decisions from executives and company founders that are handed down with little to no input from the actual workers who know the industry best. That is why we are seeing a simultaneous explosion of organizing efforts by cannabis workers themselves.
And today, we’re going to take a deep dive into this burgeoning labor movement within the cannabis industry, and learn more about what is driving it and what we all can do to support it. And I couldn’t be more honored to be joined today by an incredible panel of workers and organizers from the state of Illinois who have been fighting to unionize with the Teamsters and improve the cannabis industry for themselves, their coworkers, and their customers. Ami, Fro, Christopher, Jim, thank you all so much for joining us today on The Real News Network.
Thank you so much for having us.
Really. Thank you.
Well, there’s so much I want to talk to you guys about, and I’m really, really grateful to you all for making time for this recording. And I wanted to start by going around the table and getting to know a bit more about you four and how you came to work in the cannabis industry or organize in the cannabis industry, and what that work looks like in your respective corners of the industry. Because I have to imagine that, like me, many folks don’t know exactly what that work looks like on a day-to-day basis. So Ami, why don’t we start with you.
Hi, I’m Ami Schneider. I work at Enlightened Dispensary in Schaumburg, Illinois. I started working in the industry about two years ago. I actually started organizing around cannabis before I started working in the industry. So back before medical was even legalized, I was organizing with Illinois normal. My brother has epilepsy, so that was always an option for epilepsy. So I was definitely organizing in that medical sphere before I had even ever joined the industry. The first time I ever went to a dispensary was in Colorado after they legalized, and I was like, this would be cool to work in eventually, someday, maybe. And I had gone to college and couldn’t really get a job in my degree field, so cannabis was always kind of there. And I saw a job posting for a dispensary that was opening up in my town and I was like, this is a short commute. Why not try to get into the industry?
And I went into the interview, and they hired me the same day, which might have been a red flag in retrospect, but I was really excited. I really was like, this is something that I’m passionate about. I believe in the medicinal benefits of cannabis. I think that it’s definitely something that benefits a lot of people. It’s benefited me — I have a medical card. So it’s something that’s always been there in my life, that’s been something that I’ve been passionate about. So it made sense to join the industry.
And I really thought that it was going to be… I don’t even know what I thought. I thought it was going to be a magical weed job. And for the first couple months, I bought into everything that I thought the industry was going to be. I thought, we’re doing big things, we’re changing things. This is the progressive industry. It just felt almost kind of a pyramid scheme kind of a thing at first, the way that all of the cultivators would come in and talk up their products and everything. It really made you buy into this whole industry.
But after a couple of months, it turned around. I got a title change, so not even a promotion, just a title change. So I got a whole lot more work without having any additional compensation. I went from having a normal cannabis badging, a license to sell cannabis, to now having an agent in charge badge. So once that comes extra responsibilities. I’m able to do destruction at my store. I onboard deliveries, take in deliveries. I’m responsible for a lot more of the compliance aspects of the job, and I still make as much as people who are now coming in are making. I have gotten no raise for the past two years that I’ve been at this job, despite almost tripling, maybe even quadrupling my workload at this point.
And the reason we started organizing at my location was because I saw my coworkers being fired for very strange reasons. I saw one coworker, he had an earpiece that got stuck in his ear canal. So the little plastic bit of the earpiece for these walkie-talkies we have to use to communicate throughout the dispensary got stuck in his ear, and he had to go to immediate care because he couldn’t get it out. The company refused to reimburse him for that, and he ended up quitting because of that instance. So that was one of the things that started opening my eyes up.
We had another employee who had been paying for insurance through our company, and then when he actually went to go use that insurance, they told him that, oh, well we actually don’t have an insurance policy for you, even though he had been paying for it. And it was a lot of just situations like that, on top of the fact that I was now doing all of this extra work and not getting compensated. So a few of my coworkers started talking to each other about unionization, and I was totally on board. I had grown up in a union family. My mom is in the NALC, National Association of Letter Carriers. So I grew up going to union halls and seeing unions firsthand, and knowing what unions meant for my family, and how they provided us a good stability in life, and provided us insurance and things that not everybody has as benefits for a job.
So I was on board with the organizing and the unionizing, and it made sense. And when we went with the Teamsters, I felt very supported. They helped us figure out what our rights were. They helped us learn about how we could organize and not get in trouble for it, because there’s things you can and can’t do, technically, in the workplace. And there’s also things that the workplace will do with union busting that aren’t even legal. So you have to be really careful. But I think that with the support of having the union there with us and giving us our rights really helped to ease into that process and make it a little bit less scary. It was still very, very scary, but just knowing our rights helped a tremendous amount. And we did win our election last February, and I’m on the negotiating committee now for our bargaining unit. It’s a very slow process. It’s been very frustrating. But yeah, that’s where I’m at now.
Hell yeah. And we’re definitely going to talk about the unionization efforts, the organizing that goes into that, the pitfalls you got to navigate to get to that first contract. But Fro, why don’t you introduce yourself as well to the good Real News viewers and listeners. Tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got into the cannabis industry, and what sort of work you do there.
Yes. Okay. So my government name is Ryan Frohlich, but my friends call me Fro. There were three Ryans when I started working there, and they asked me what my name was. And without skipping a beat, I said Fro. So now I’m Fro. I do love that name, by the way. I had a similar story to Ami, actually. I started out as a budtender. I got hired working in a chiropractic office. I wasn’t getting paid there. My boss had fallen on hard times and just stopped paying his employees. I had a client that came in who happened to be the owner of a location, THC, The Herbal Care Center. It got sold to Verano Holdings and it became Zen Leaf eventually. But this client saw that I was struggling and he gave me a job. I don’t know if I can curse, but I worked my ass off at this place, and I eventually got promoted to AIC.
It’s now a Zen Leaf location. And while I still love my job, there’s just a lack of respect amongst my coworkers. A lot of people get bullied. A lot of people get shut down for things they say, for things they do. And it’s frustrating to witness, and it’s frustrating to hear it and say, I’m going to say something, and nothing happens. This is why we went to the Teamsters. I wasn’t the one who initiated my location, but my location did have multiple people that went in to do this. Two people ended up getting fired because of organizing, and they have since gotten their jobs back along with back pay, all because of the Teamsters’ efforts. And this is something we are trying to make everyone realize, that if you are treated unfairly, we will be able to help you.
So I am on the negotiating committee because unfortunately the two people who started organizing did end up getting fired. They’ve since got their jobs back. And basically we are all working together as a unit to make our Pilsen location the ideal working location. Thank you.
Beautiful. And yes, you can definitely curse. I cuss like a sailor on The Real News, so I can’t ask others to censor themselves. So perfect. So then I’ll hang back in the cut, Christopher, if you want to hop in and then whenever you’re done, Jim, go for it and then we’ll do the second round around the table.
Hello, I’m Christopher Smith. I work with Local 777. I’m the business agent with the Local, but I have been in the cannabis industry for going on five years now. I started when it was mom and pop and just medical. I am a medical cardholder as well. And then because corporate takeover started to happen in my state, a lot of the mom and pops started to sell off, which is what happened to my first location and the second location I worked for. And then the third, which is where I met the Teamsters, was Verano in Romeoville, Illinois, owned by PharmaCare. It was a five-location movement, so we ended up getting five storefronts in that period of time that all were able to negotiate for their first contract. I ended up getting elected onto the negotiation committee, so I was on the forefront of the beginning and getting that election so that we had representation.
Then Teamsters, my president, Jim Glimco, decided he wanted to pull me out to offer me a position as the business agent with the local because he’s seen leadership abilities in me, and through desire to have change in this industry. There’s a lot of workers like myself that have a lot of skill and knowledge and bring a lot of customer care and service to the industry.
Unfortunately, one of our main concerns and why we had to organize in my location and unionize was it is a cutthroat industry right now. Being an at-will employee means that you can be fired at any point in time, and with a union that changes, you are no longer based on your contract and a just cause county. And so with that, the turnaround rate was huge. So job security was the big focus for us, and long-term career opportunity.
The only way to make a career in this industry prior was if you got lucky enough to get up in management, and sometimes at the locations, it’s who you know, not how skilled you are, which that is the unfortunate reality. So we had to create an opportunity to where we would get guaranteed raises as deserved and have benefits such as a pension. And now what my job will entail as the business agent is enforcing the contracts as they get in to ensure that they are actually upheld, visiting the location. Any issue that the workers may have, they can reach out to me and their shop stewards, and we can work to resolve them and have the workers truly have a voice to the top, because this is the only way that they get a direct communication. And unfortunately in this industry, there’s so many moving compartments that corporate, nine times out of 10, does not know what’s going on at their own location.
And with that, we’re creating that change. And then also hoping to implement a pension, which is something that was a huge part of my organizing task, to gain that in our contracts, as well as a little bit more security in our industry. We had gotten moved down to one security guard that was unarmed, and it felt, at times, especially when he was on his lunch break, not very safe. And that being said, I think there needs to be a change, and so did a lot of the industry at all locations with how they’re handling security at the locations. So putting standards so they can’t take away with making us feel safe in our workplace. But yeah, that’s basically my background, so thank you.
All right. Hello everybody. My name’s Jim Glimco. I’m president of Teamsters Local 777. Teamsters 777 is the cannabis local for the state of Illinois. And how we got there is Local 777 has a great history of always organizing, always about organizing new members. We did organize a couple dispensaries early on a couple of years ago, which was a Moca by Ascend in the city. We’ve negotiated, we’ve got contracts with them. The Teamsters since then, they have a new administration. Sean O’Brien is the general president, and he had me at the office headquarters at the IBT. And he has actually given us all the resources of our great international, which is a big, big organization, to help organize in this industry. So our goal for the industry is to raise the standards for the people working in the industry.
But I got to tell you, it’s a fun industry because you’re dealing with a lot of young people, and a lot of really nice people. I deal with other jobs and other things in the other part of the union. But with cannabis, what’s really unique about it is people want to be in this industry because it’s cannabis, because they have personal experiences with it, and they really want to do this. So it’s great, they get in there, they want to do it, but then they’re finding out that it’s not giving them all the things they need to stay in this industry.
So our goal is to raise the standards, to make sure that this industry pays proper wages, proper benefits, and people are treated properly so that the people who want to be here can stay here and make a career out of it. So that’s our goal.
And the other goal is that I have personally is with a lot of these people, I can see that there’s a lot of people that are getting in this, involved in this, and these are the future generation of the labor movement is in this industry I see, easily. So I’m excited to be part of this, and they’re really the stars of what’s going on in the labor movement today. So my hat’s off to the workers doing this.
Hell yeah. No, I think that’s beautifully put, and definitely one of the primary reasons that we wanted to have y’all on The Real News and make sure that our viewers and listeners know what’s going on, because this is all very important and very exciting, and I think has a lot to teach all of us who are invested in the labor movement or in workers anywhere, standing up for their rights, securing better working conditions for themselves and their coworkers, improving the industries that they want to make a career in. I really sympathize and empathize with what you just said, Jim, and what you all described in that first round around the table. Because yeah, I feel like cannabis fits into that category of industries where you can be exploited or taken advantage of because of how much you want to work in the industry or because of your personal investment in the service that’s being provided.
I’m recording from The Real News Network, which is a nonprofit news network. Anyone who’s worked at a nonprofit knows that you can take advantage of people and even overwork yourself because you’re so dedicated to the mission, but that’s no excuse for not getting the pay, benefits, treatment that you deserve, so on and so forth. But this happens in places like academia. So many adjunct professors or underpaid graduate students do so much vital labor that keeps higher education afloat, but they get paid like shit. They get treated like shit. And so much of it is justified because of the love that people have for learning, for their students, for their craft.
Take your pick, you could talk about minor league baseball players who just unionized last year — Shout out to the minor leaguers. But anyone who’s in that kind of industry where that vocational call to the work becomes, I think, a very complicated thing that can lead to very unfortunate consequences for the people working in those industries.
I want to build on that, because y’all started touching on this in that first round around the table, but I wanted to zero in on the unionization efforts happening across this industry in the states where marijuana is legal. So could you talk a bit more about the key issues and concerns that have been driving workers in this industry to organize, that maybe they’re more industry specific or maybe they’re the kinds of issues that workers in any service industry job or any retail job will face. And can you talk about what that organizing has looked like in your own stores? And say a little more about what it’s going to mean for you all and your coworkers to be unionized with the Teamsters. So Ami, we’ll start with you again.
Hello. So at my location and just in the industry in general, the wages are pretty abysmal. My location especially, a lot of the other locations are starting out a little bit higher than us. So our location starts at $15 an hour, and we’re all making $15 an hour there. Like I touched on when I first introduced myself, I have additional badging, so I’ve got additional workloads that are piled on me because I’m an agent in charge. On top of that, at the second level of badging, there’s certain things that fall on you as an agent in charge that you wouldn’t have that would fall on you as just a registered agent able to sell cannabis. For instance, when inspections happen, we have to be able to go and do the inspections with the state. I’m the only one in the building at my location who does destruction.
So in the state of Illinois, part of the compliance is that any product that is expired, any product that’s damaged, anything like that has to be destroyed. And I’m the only one in the store that does that. When I initially started in this position, only managers did that duty. That’s the only people that filled that role. And then it started being what we call floor leads at our location, which is like, they’re part of our bargaining unit, but they make significantly more than I do, and they were the ones that were supposed to be doing the destruction of the product. The one person that did that ended up quitting, he rage quit because of all of the issues that we have at our store and within our company. He just couldn’t take it anymore.
And after he left, I was the only person that had even observed destruction happening. So I had to take on that duty because I was the only one that even had a passing understanding of destruction. I didn’t get trained, really, on how to do it. I had to kind of teach myself, which is completely bonkers, to have to teach yourself how to do something that’s a literal state compliance issue. And to my credit, I get complimented by the state when they come in. They’re like, you’re doing awesome at destruction. I do things that apparently other dispensaries tend to forget. So the state always comes in and tells my general manager, this is on. This is spot on, which feels good to hear from the state because I don’t hear it really from anybody at my company. I’m not getting any additional compensation for it. So I guess it’s nice that somebody’s recognizing that I’m not getting fines for our store for being good at my job.
On top of that, there’s a whole bunch of issues I touched on before with the way that they treat people at our location. I had mentioned the one employee that had the earpiece stuck in his ear. We also had another employee who clearly had some physical limitations happening and was in pain, clearly in pain on the sales floor. And they would not let him sit down, and they would give him grief about sitting down. And it was observably cruel to watch somebody having to be put through that. I mean, I feel like they were trying to do that so that he would quit. Eventually they did fire him, but the working conditions that they provided for him were unbearable. It was really hard to watch somebody being treated like that, regardless of what they thought his work ethic was, or whatever they held against him. No human being should be treated like that. There was no dignity in the way that they were treating him.
And yeah, we’ve had a lot of issues with being severely overworked. So our staff originally started, we had like 50 team members. We now have I think 25 staff members. And we are the only dispensary in our area, at least I’m not sure about the rest of the state, but we have all of our product on display. So every single morning we have to come to work, put everything out into these glass cabinets, and then we have to set it all up. We have what’s called cannabis guides. So a lot of dispensaries do either pre-orders, or you come to the store and you order at a counter. We have a full service thing going on at our dispensary. So you come in, you’re talking to a cannabis guide, you can ask all sorts of questions, you can see what product we have. We’re expected to have a very high level of knowledge at our store so that we can have these conversations with people face to face.
And we are getting paid the least out of anybody else in the industry for the most amount of service, which, again, feels very wrong. And the company I work for is Revolution. So they’re really riding this very esteemed reputation that they have in the industry. They won six first place cannabis cups in 2020. They are constantly placed in the cannabis cups. The team is being very prestigious as far as weed companies go in Illinois. They’re one of the top tier companies. People assume that if you work for Revolution, things must be great. I remember going to other dispensaries and people were like, oh my gosh, you work for Revolution. That’s so cool. At first I was like, yeah, this is awesome. And now I’m like, you have no idea. The difference between the public image that they have and how they treat their workers, from all of us who work at the stores, even management gets treated pretty crappy at this company, at the store level and our cultivation, they get treated abysmally.
In cultivation, they can’t even… They’re growing the product, they’re extracting the product, and they don’t even get samples down there. Not that we get samples, really, from our own company. Most of the samples we get are from other companies. Our company just doesn’t take care of us really at all. So there’s just so many issues. Then management, they can’t really do their jobs because corporate is micromanaging the hell out of our shop. So these people who don’t even understand the industry at all are determining what should go on in our store on a day-to-day basis. Our store doesn’t even have lighters to sell, which is a customer service point. How do you have a place that’s selling you cannabis and you don’t even have lighters to give to your customers? And then the customers are coming at us, the employees like, what the hell, and getting mad at us for things that corporate is dictating.
So not only are we getting BS from corporate coming down on us telling us, get your cart totals up. Sell more, sell more, even if the customers don’t need it, which feels to me ethically wrong. I don’t want to give somebody a product that’s not going to work for them, and it’s aggressive sales. So we get that from corporate and then we have customers who are getting mad at us about the aggressive sales tactics, or getting mad at us because we don’t have things like lighters, or because we don’t have things to actually consume their products all in one spot.
So we’re getting it from every end, which again, is why organizing has been so important, because the issues between corporate treating us terribly, having to put on a customer service face even when we’re being treated terribly at times, all of these factors that play into it, and to be compensated so little for the work is crazy.
You can go across the street at our location to McDonald’s and make $2 more an hour where we’re at. We’ve tried to bring this up to management. When I tried to negotiate before we even unionized like, hey, I’m doing all of this extra work, shouldn’t there be compensation?” I was pretty much essentially told, “If you don’t like it, you can quit. And I was like, qell, I really like this job though. I love my coworkers. It’s not that I hate the job. I hate the corporate atmosphere. I hate the micromanaging. I hate that the workers aren’t being listened to when we have good ideas for how to make things better, we understand our customers, we understand the industry, and we’re not listened to and we are overworked and completely underpaid. The amount of things that I’ve had to deal with are really just bonkers.
During our organization efforts, they hired a labor consultant, so a union buster, for $71,000, we found out, and they still can’t give us raises. So it’s like, you paid this guy $71,000 for an ineffective union busting campaign, but you’re going to give us grief over giving us a little bit of a raise. The employees who sit there and drive your business, create our customers who come back all of the time. We have regular customers who seek out certain people in our store because they trust them. But you’re going to pay $71,000 to this guy to tell us not to organize.
And that whole situation was also very odd. So this guy comes in, he’s a labor consultant, and I got accused of salting for the union, which at that time I had no idea what salting even was. So I was like, what does that even mean? But it was during a closed door meeting where they bring everybody in, and that it was half of the store was on the floor and then half was in the meeting and then they would switch us out.
And then our half of the meeting he said, yeah, we have suspicions of somebody’s salting. And I was like, what the hell even is that? And it turns out that he was accusing me of being some covert operative for the union, but that’s because I knew my rights because the Teamsters had taught me what my rights are, what this guy’s going to say. They really prepared us for this union busting drive so that we knew what this guy was going to say. We knew all of the BS he was going to spew at us, and we knew how to combat that in a way that made sense for us. We knew that all of the things he was saying against union dues and all of these ills and all of this, it was just BS because the company has interest in us not unionizing. If we unionize, we have a voice at a bargaining table. They can’t just fire us for any reason. They can’t just tell us they’re going to change policies on us.
And even though we don’t have a contract, we’ve seen the effects of being able to have the union because we’ve had people who have gotten brought in for disciplinary meetings where they’ve avoided getting the discipline because they have the union. They know their rights. They’re like, no, I’m not going to sign that. I want my union representative. I’ve been brought into meetings with people when we don’t have, obviously the local’s not going to come in because we are the union. So if one of my coworkers has had a problem with an issue, I’ve been brought into these meetings ,and I feel like that has helped to defuse the situation, just having somebody else in that room so that corporate and management can’t just say a bunch of stuff and have no record of anybody else seeing it. And they’ve also been unable to change certain policies that have been long-standing on us.
So there’s definitely, even without the contract yet, benefits that we’ve seen. But our negotiations are going very, very slowly. Our last negotiation after… We’ve been in negotiations since last year, last April. Our last negotiation two weeks ago was the first time that the person from corporate that represents our corporate actually showed up in person to our negotiations, which is insulting. And then the things that have happened in negotiations with the slowing of the process, it just seems very calculated.
We’ve been losing a lot of our original people who signed on for the union, and they’ve been hiring a lot of new people. So the union busting didn’t stop just because we got the contract. So it’s an ongoing thing with them that they keep trying to break us. I suspect, honestly, that they’re trying to draw out the process so that they can try to de-certify the union election because of how long it’s gone on now, and just because of the different tactics.
Another thing that I personally experienced was myself and another AIC, my good friend Zach, he’s on the bargaining committee with me. There were four agents in charge that could have been promoted for a floor lead position and a management position. The two agents in charge who were not vocally pro-union are the ones that got promoted. And then Zach and I, who had been on the union paperwork for the press release when we first unionized, we had both been quoted in the press release. We have not been promoted, and we’ve continually had more and more and more work thrown on us. It’s a mess. It’s just a continuation of union busting efforts that didn’t stop just because we unionized, which is why we need to fight to get this contract so they can stop and we have a grievance procedure and can really go after them.
Beautiful. So that was great. Ami, thank you so much. I’m hanging back. So Fro, Christopher, Jim, go for it.
Yes. Okay, I got a few things. First of all, I can relate so heavily to you, Ami, being in the position of AIC as well. We have a cap. Unfortunately, we do have a bit of a higher pay rate over in Chicago, so we’re starting at $16, and AICs are getting $19. However, $19 is the cap, absolute cap. There is no promotion from there. There is no pay raise from there, and that’s completely ridiculous, especially when you have AICs working there, not me included, but other AICs that have been there two, three years-plus still making $19 in today’s climate. That’s not cost of living in the slightest bit. And these are people who used to work paramedic jobs, who used to be office managers at different hospitals, who understand how to run a medical facility. And my location is a medical location, but these people are not being compensated for that. They are their therapists, they are their friends, and at the same time they are their budtenders, and they’re not being respected in any way because of that.
In fact, they are readily reminded that they are replaceable in every single way. And that is something that is so frustrating. You can’t go into a job every single day and get reminded that you are just a cog in the machine. That is very annoying, it’s depressing. It makes people want to quit. And that is what corporate wants. They want people to quit so they can hire the people who will come in, do the job, get frustrated, quit again, do the job again. So they can keep pay benefits and everything else at the stagnated rate that it is. That’s something I’m not going to stand for anymore, because I’ll work all day, all night. I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure that my coworkers can go home and afford their rent, can afford their hospital bills, can afford their groceries. It’s just a common thing. A thing me and a few of my coworkers did.
So we had a vending machine that wasn’t getting regularly stocked, and there was a mom who worked with us. And she complained one day in a bit of frustration, honestly, that she can’t afford to go to the McDonald’s across the street every single day because she has to go home and help her kid, blah, blah, blah. So from that day on, me and three other coworkers decided like, ee’re going to buy mac and cheese, easy Mac from the microwave, ramen, bring that in. And that’s going to be food you can eat if you need and you’re a little bit broke and tips aren’t enough. Since then, my management has put in a little bit of a budget for that, but it took us doing that. And that is the big message we’re having here with unionizing. It’s when we get together, we can make changes.
Another thing I want to mention, and I wrote notes, excuse me for looking away, is about the compliance. You put on a really great point. Once you get promoted to AIC, it becomes a whole different game that a lot of people really do not understand. You are expected to understand every single rule the state has when it comes to compliance with cannabis, and those rules will change on a dime within 24 hours notice. It’s completely ridiculous, and the customers get extremely frustrated about it. But you are expected to explain in a calm way that this is the change, and this is how we need to do it moving forward. This causes for a lot of anger with our customers, and us as workers are expected to defuse that anger.
Yet these corporations — I work for Verano, Ami works for a Revolution. They have been cutting back on means like security guards. We used to have two to three at a given time. Currently, my location has one, only one, who is not allowed to leave the location for the entirety of their shift. There have been shootings, there have been deaths, there has been altercations. For me to be expected to do that at $19 an hour, or for someone else to be expected to do that at $16, whatever you’re getting paid, that is not acceptable. We are expected to be that face. But these people — I’m talking about the corporations here — These people also expect us to go above and beyond for how little they respect us. That makes no sense to me.
Another instance I want to bring up is the responsibilities, as Ami said previously as well, we are expected to do so much more. There was a time where there’s people that come that pick up our money from our safes. They came very late this day. So I was expected to give the money in our safe to them. I didn’t know the combination to the safe. I had to call my boss. This person, this other worker who is late, obviously, and has more drop-offs to pick up, is waiting for me to get the combination to this code. It took a while, but I got it. When I held this bag, I realized I would never hold this much money in my life. It was upwards of $100,000 in my hand. And I’m like, this is ridiculous. What am I doing? That is disheartening. I don’t expect $100,000 in my hand. What I do expect is to get compensated for doing something like that. Do you understand?
I would like to be respected. What I’m getting paid is starting pay. I’m 30 years old. I’ve been in the workforce for maybe 25 of those years, just doing odd jobs, even babysitting my nephews. It’s hard to sit there when, as Ami said, again, you have corporate coming in, and I don’t mean to be mean, but some of them are just people straight out of college who are like, yeah, let’s do this. And they expect you to do things in a way that their frat brothers would do. And then they talk to you in a way that is like you don’t understand business. And it’s like, no, I just do it differently than you, and I expect you to treat me a certain way, but you’re not. And I’m going to unionize, and I’m going to talk to my coworkers in a way that you don’t like, because at the end of the day I understand that you actually can’t do anything to me for doing that.
It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to have to deal with. Especially because, again, as Ami’s so astutely put, they drag these processes out. They make us feel as if little moments are stopping us. They are nails in the floorboard, but they’re not. They’re just you wasting time, and I’m going to show you that I am here to sit as long as I need to make this a reality.
Fro and Ami both covered great aspects, and I think hitting on both of them, one of the reasons that my location when I was still working in the industry as a budtender, we wanted to ensure that we had that voice and those raises. And with the Teamsters and the education they provided to us because we knew how we could keep the unit together as best as possible even though there was a lot of union busting done. And with that, it made me realize as our state keeps talking about these social equity movements and how the cannabis industry is supposed to be giving back to those disproportionately affected, unfortunately they’re not, because that is the workforce.
As you’ve just heard, we have a workforce that is underpaid and overworked. So this is where we hope as, not as the Teamsters do, not only set the standards in the industry, but truly bring the social equity movement to the country, and specifically right now to Illinois, and set the standards for the rest of the nation as, hopefully, federal legalization comes. There is a bigger push for hope of that to get cannabis more normalized in society and accepted as medicine. I believe that this whole movement will help solidify that as well.
Yeah, let me talk about, with this industry, what I think is really amazing. So when you go to a dispensary, you just really see the people up front, but you don’t realize all the work that gets done in the dispensary. So in the back of the house, there’s an elaborate inventory system, elaborate computer systems. The inventory is in a vault, the state regulates the hell out of this business, so they’ve got to follow this, this, and this, and this, all these rules on everything.
There’s shipping and receiving jobs that is just like in any other company and all these type of jobs. You’ve also got the people at the front who are selling the product, and the knowledge they have to have. I mean, the company does give them samples and educates them on what goes on. I’m sure they have a lot of life, a lifelong learning in this industry, which I’m sure they enjoy. And then also there’s a lot of people who’ve had medical issues and they got into the cannabis industry because of their medical issues and because they know how the cannabis really helps people and what it does for people. And that’s kind of the passion that people have and why they want to do this business.
So if you compare all these skill sets that you have in this industry compared to the other jobs that are in Chicago and Illinois and what they pay, these guys are grossly underpaid for what they’re doing and for the skill level that is expected of them. What’s disheartening to the workers is, okay, they will sit at a register all day, and that register at the end of the day, they see that total. And there’s many days where the total that they ring up for that day is more than they make in a year. It’s just really mind-boggling.
In the state of Illinois, Chicagoland area, they’ve been publishing every month how much money cannabis is making because it is a newer industry, and it’s really taking in a ton of money. The workers see other jobs that don’t have the skillset that they have right next door paying more money than they’re being paid. We know that the money’s there. We know that this is an industry that is growing. It is a new industry. It’s different than any other new industry that’s ever been out there that I know about, because with this industry, when they started just a few years ago, they started with a built-in customer base. So it didn’t start from scratch. There were millions of people doing cannabis everywhere and who are their customers. So it’s financially very, very successful, but they’re not sharing that with their workers, and that’s with all the union, the workers that are unionizing we’ve got about 17 different dispensaries that have organized.
We do have a couple that are under contract, and we’re getting close to the finish line on many negotiations, but we’re trying to get them to where they have to be so that this is the kind of job that the people you see here can stay here for a long time, because people really want to work here for a long time. They want to make this a career, and they do want to move up into the industry, and they have the skillset to do that. And that’s what we’re trying to do. So we’re trying to really bring the standards in this industry, create a standard in all the contracts so that people can stay in this industry and enjoy it and have a job that they can say, hey, I really like my job. I like working in this industry, and I do get paid well too. Not that, I like the job, but I’m working for peanuts. They don’t want to be saying that. But we’re working on it, and it’s getting there.
I just wanted to add with the retirement benefits that we do want as workers and what we are pushing. So some of the dispensaries do have a 401K benefit currently, but unfortunately, due to the low wages, being able to put into that is very difficult. And then there are different parameters on if the employer will match you or not, and how long we’ve been there or how much you have to actually put in. So that being said, having the Teamster Western Conference attention for the workers in this industry will set a retirement standard that can change lives. And given the amount of money that we see, and as I brought up before the social equity movement, this is how we can help the next generation retire, and properly.
So I think that that pension is one of the ways that we can guarantee as workers a career and an actual benefit, because it is employer contributed. So it would be a way for us to retain a little bit more money, maybe still add into that 401k, but also have a guaranteed retirement for all of the hard work and knowledge that we will put in throughout the next however many years.
It’s so incredible to hear about everything that is going on in this industry. And of course, we urge everyone watching and listening to this to do what you can to learn about those organizing efforts. Maybe they’re happening in your areas, and maybe there’s something that you can do to help, because we all need to stand together. And just like we are urging folks to continue supporting the Amazon Labor Union in their fight to get a first contract for the workers at the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island, just like we are urging folks to not forget about Starbucks workers who have been unionizing around the country. but have yet to reach a first contract, and in fact have been facing vicious, relentless union busting: Worker organizers getting fired for the flimsiest excuses, unionized stores getting closed down at the drop of a hat like they did in Ithaca in Seattle.
We all have to stay vigilant, and we have to keep showing up for one another. And that includes our fellow workers in the cannabis industry like Ami, Fro, Christopher, folks who are still fighting to get to that first contract and improve the industry for themselves, their coworkers, and anyone who walks in the door and gets hired in a dispensary or anywhere else for years to come. This isn’t just about the folks working there now. This is about anyone who comes to work in this industry that, as we’ve all acknowledged, is booming right now, is raking in a lot of money.
And of course, I want to just acknowledge what is on all of our minds, I’m sure, it is the elephant in the room. We know that in the United States, the patently obvious injustice is the fact that so much money is being made from this industry while so many people continue to rot in prison for low-level drug offenses, primarily Black, Brown, and poor people. So there’s a whole lot to fix here. But I think that workers taking more control over that industry, having more of a say in that industry, is a very necessary step to attaining some level of justice in this fundamentally unjust arrangement. So we want to acknowledge that.
But we’ve covered so much important ground here, and I know I can’t keep you guys for much longer. So I just wanted to go around the table one more time and ask how you see yourselves and your organizing efforts in the cannabis industry, how you see that connected to the rest of the worker mobilizations that we’re seeing: Amazon, Starbucks — But also in healthcare, in retail, nonprofit spaces. I think there’s a lot to feel hopeless about in our world today, but this energy that’s coming from the rank and file in so many different industries, including ones that have been really traditionally hard to organize in, that is one source of hope that I think we can all latch onto and we can all do something to support.
And so I wanted to round out by asking A, how you see yourselves in the cannabis industry participating in a broader labor movement. And ultimately, I wanted to finish by asking what folks watching and listening can do to support you all, both in your local fights to get to that first contract, but also what we can do to support workers in the cannabis industry across the board.
So I think that as far as where I see myself in the cannabis organizing sphere, I think securing the first contract is incredibly important for everybody that’s going to work after I stay or go or whatever the future holds. Having a groundwork for other people to be treated with dignity, I think is so important for the industry. I also think that the more of us that organize together through different bargaining units, that really gives us a collective power beyond just our local bargaining unit, beyond just what’s in our stores. It gives us the power of the Teamsters. We are organized with this big, larger umbrella of organization, and that gives us more political power so that we would as an industry have more say as a whole to change things for the better for workers.
Because there’s so many things out there regulations wise that should be challenged just because they don’t really make sense, they’re not beneficial. And organizing on this local level provides that framework for us to organize on a larger scale, to really make differences for our industry. And my hope is that we’ll continue to organize, that we’ll get these contracts, and we’ll show people that this should be a career. It’s hard to even move into another career after working in cannabis because other employees look at like, oh, you’re a pothead. We don’t want to hire you, without really understanding how smart the people who work in this industry really are, the skillset that goes into everything we do. We are doing customer service, we’re doing retail, we’re doing shipping, receiving, we’re doing compliance. There are so many things that go into it. I think a lot of people just see it as, oh, this is just this glamorous fun job.
It is fun for a lot of different reasons, like the industry events are cool, but the actual nitty-gritty down in the dirt or work that goes into it isn’t really as glamorous as people would think. It’s hard work. There’s days that I’m doing like 15,000 steps running from our fulfillment to our registers to get product to customers. There’s days that I am so sore from hauling boxes around. And people should be compensated for that. People should be compensated for the labor that they put in, especially when these corporations are making as much money as they are. A lot of these companies are just focused on expansion, rapid expansion rather than taking care of the people who are already building their companies and the people who are really the bread and butter of the company. You need to take care of what you have before you start expanding everywhere else, and really take care of your people. So my hope is that that will happen through more organization efforts.
Ami, I have to say, you are hitting all the exact points. I’ve never met you before, but man, I relate to everything you say to a T. And again, we’re two different companies, Revolution versus Verano. I know they, on a corporate level, have been in wars with each other. They barely get your product into our store, and people want that.
So what I would say my place is in this industry is someone who is passionate about cannabis, about the benefits it has for you, about educating people about those said benefits, about telling people what will and won’t work for them. I want to do that. But you as a corporation don’t seem to value that. They want people who will just quit on a dime, and we’re trying to tell you that we want to make this work for you. Why can’t you work with us? That’s my question for all of the corporations. Why can’t you work with us? Because again, you’re rapidly expanding, and your workforce is not dwindling. Why can’t you help us out as the climate changes, as the cost of living increases? Why can you not help us out so we can get in our cars every day and sell the products you want us to sell?
It’s frustrating, but I won’t give up and they’ll try to make me give up, but it’s not going to happen. And I hope anyone out there who is fighting the same issues, who is trying to do the same thing at their location, be this cannabis, be this pizza cutting, I don’t know. I hope you know that we as a unit can always work together to make a work environment viable for you. You don’t have to give up.
I think too many people in this world right now, too many people in our generation are fearful to commit to something like that out of fear of moving up somewhere, but it does happen. You can move up, you can get promoted, you can do anything you want to do. Joining a union will not stop that, and do not let anyone tell you otherwise.
And the Teamsters have really paved that in for me, especially Local 777. I was scared to do this. I was not an initiator amongst my location. Once I saw it was going through, I made sure that I was involved. And I don’t regret that it’s given me purpose. It’s made me feel like I can do something in this world. And so can anyone else watching this right now. Thank you so much.
That was amazing, Fro, and I agree with that. I think that if you wanted to help this movement out and you are a cannabis worker, you unionize. Contact the local in your area. And if it’s in Illinois, please contact Local 777. We definitely want to get you guys as much information and help that we can.
But to touch on the bigger aspect of what we are accomplishing here. This is the fight against the separation of wealth in this country. This is one of the first movements in a new industry, but we’re joining the rest of the industries that are older than us, and we will not give up.
You have a huge body of people that have a very strong will and a need for change, to be able to provide for their families and to provide for themselves. I believe that that is the biggest takeaway that I’m gaining, is all of us are joining together to try to stop this separation of wealth before it is too late in our middle class is completely gone. And that is what I wanted to leave off with. So thank you for this opportunity to explain ourselves and our movement.
Well, thank you, Max. I appreciate that, as you can see, the group around me is very sharp and very bright, and I’m very lucky. Local 777, some people think that’s a lucky number. So I think that I’m lucky to be surrounded by good people all the time, and people who go above and beyond what you would ever expect to help the movement.
When you compare what’s going on today in the labor movement, one of the big things is that there’s a lot of big campaigns: the Amazon campaign, the Starbucks campaign, the cannabis campaign, and these are all big campaigns predominantly with younger people. It’s really an exciting time to be in labor. I think that the cannabis campaign has an advantage over all the other campaigns. One of the big advantages is we’re organizing an industry at its infancy. So we’re not going against Goliath. The Goliath that is Amazon, the Goliath that is Starbucks. A lot of these are smaller ma and pop, they’re big corporations, but they’re not in the ballpark of an Amazon.
So because of that, I’m extremely confident that we’re going to be incredibly successful in this industry and organizing and getting it to where it needs to go. So I think we will have great success, and that success will spill over into other parts of labor.
But a part of it, when you look at the younger people today that are involved in this, I mean, I got to say, because I know how I was when I was their age. They’re a lot smarter than we ever were. They get it. When a union buster comes out there and tells all the stuff that they say and all the BS, and they can see through that BS so perfectly. So it doesn’t work at all on younger people. You can’t screw them on fake information. I mean, they’ll pull their phone out, they’ll look it up right away to see is this true or not. So the union busters really aren’t working in this industry.
And with what’s going on now is, younger people, they want careers. They don’t want just a job, they want a career. And that’s what we’re trying to build. I think we’re going to get there. With cannabis, a lot of people who are coming into it, there’s a culture to cannabis, and they just love this culture. And the culture they want to keep, but then with this industry there’s a lot of people who’ve bought into the industry that are big time investors, and they’re investing money to try to make money on this industry. And they don’t really always have the culture at heart. They just want to make money. And a lot of the workers that are coming here, they’re into the industry, and they want to save the culture, and they want to protect the industry. So there’s kind of a clash there.
And when you hear in the newspaper and you hear why cannabis was allowed to legalize and all that, the big thing was social equity and to create social equity jobs, social equity to the people who got screwed over the legalization of cannabis. So far, none of that’s really materialized. I was reading the paper the other day, there was a social equity license went out, and a couple of the partners, one’s an alderman, one is a guy who’s got a top job with the Chicago Public Schools. And this is a social equity license. That seems like a million miles away from social equity to me, personally.
So to me, social equity is this work, the workforce in cannabis in most of the locations we deal with is very diverse, incredibly diverse, and for the workers to get paid properly, that’s the social equity. That’s why it made sense to legalize cannabis is that wealth is being created, and with that wealth, people can profit off it by having good jobs, they can provide for their families, they can pay their rent, pay their car note on cannabis. So that’s the social equity we’re looking for, and I’m just excited to be part of this industry with these good people. So I really appreciate it Max, thanks for having us on the show.
Hell yeah. So that is our incredible panel of workers and organizers in the cannabis industry. Shout out to Teamsters Local 777 and to everyone out there who’s fighting to organize with their coworkers, to improve their lives, their workplaces, and ultimately help us all fight to make a better world together.
I want to thank Ami, Fro, Christopher, and Jim for joining us on The Real News. Guys, keep up the fight. Please let us know how things are going. And yeah, we’ll have you back on when you get that first contract. And we’re sending love and solidarity from Baltimore. Thank you for joining us today.
Thank you so much.
For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.
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