California stoners find an unlikely ally in the UFCW

Mike Riggs Contributor
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Oaksterdam University, where stoners go to get schooled on the art of growing ganja, isn’t exactly a bastion of blue-collar idealism. Or it wasn’t until this week, when the staff and faculty at Oaksterdam’s Oakland campus joined the Oakland United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5. What would have seemed like a strange union in the halcyon days of organized labor now seems to make a modicum of sense, and not just to potheads: If anyone can muscle California politicians into supporting marijuana legalization, it’s the UFCW.

In November, Californians will vote on a ballot initiative to “control and tax cannabis.” If the initiative passes, California residents ages 21 and up will be allowed to use marijuana recreationally. Pollsters have
reported a dead heat among the bill’s supporters and opponents, and bong-rippers are so excited they can hardly see straight. But there are still six months to November, which is plenty of time for the scale to tip in favor of prolonging prohibition. Enter the UFCW and all that comes with union membership: An army of picketers and flier distributors, influence in the California legislature, and deep, green campaign coffers.

“This partnership legitimizes the cannabis industry,” said Dale Sky Clare, a charming redhead who serves as Oaksterdam’s Chancellor when she’s not teaching Medical Marijuana 101. “Until now, we’ve always been a movement.”

And movements are not so good at pressing flesh with legislative suits. Or convincing skeptical voters that there’s no harm in legalizing Hindu Kush and Strawberry Cough. But Clare believes the UFCW officials when they say they can help the marijuana movement do both those things.

“They’re offering protection,” Clare said in a recent interview. “When we walk into a city council meeting with a local union who they’ve trusted for years to regulate local industries, it’s like comfort food to them. They trust unions. The fear of back alley deals dissipates.”

At first, the folks at Oaksterdam didn’t want a union. The employees were happy with their pay, their hours, and the way the school is managed. They’re so used to feeling marginalized by mainstream
institutions, that they “were worried about how the unions might interfere with what has been a really healthy relationship,” Clare said. “It took some convincing and educating of our employees to get them to accept the union.”

Nothing much will change at Oaksterdam now that it’s unionized, she added. Sure, vacation days, dispensed amicably and generously in the past, will be set in stone. But otherwise, the university already has enviable employee-friendly policies in place.

Still, Clare sees the deal as a win-win. Oakland’s UFCW Local 5 will “educate its members” about the advantages of controlling and taxing marijuana, and encourage them to spread the gospel of letting adults do what they will in private. Not because the union endorses marijuana use, says Local 5 organizer Dan Rush, but because weed and hemp, like cigarettes and alcohol in UFCW supermarkets, mean jobs. Union jobs.

If anything, it’s the UCFW that has the most to gain. Private sector union membership in 2009 was roughly half of what it was 30 years ago. Barring federal interference, passage of California’s marijuana ballot initiative would lead to the creation of tens of thousands of weed-related jobs: sales staff, pot sommeliers, personal buyers, growers, shippers, packagers, renovation gigs for remodeling retail space. By getting in on the ground floor, the UFCW has a chance to dominate in an industry where employees and employers alike are –as of this moment anyway– far less skeptical of organized labor than the long-unionized supermarket industry.

Enter Rush, a lifelong resident of Oakland and a veteran UFCW organizer.

“I was watching the revitalization of the community thanks to Oaksterdam and the other ancillary medical marijuana groups,” he said in an interview. “I took a couple of days off and studied all of
the initiatives, which is what I do for my union. In doing that, I stumbled across the tax, control, and regulate initiative. And I thought, This is going to create a gazillion jobs if it gets passed.” Kaching!

Rush went to Oaksterdam and started on knocking on doors. “What I heard from many of the workers was that they had great jobs, they loved Oaksterdam, they loved their employer, but the problem that they
had was that they didn’t get a lot of dignity or respect in the community. So I said to Oaksterdam’s people, Why don’t we band together and go get the justice and dignity that you guys deserve?” Luckily for Oaksterdam, money can buy something resembling respect–a captive political audience.

But the UFCW has taken a slightly different approach in selling the ballot measure. “This is a recreational use initiative, but we refer to it as a jobs creator,” Rush said. “We don’t care if people smoke pot, we don’t care if they don’t smoke pot. Our members work in those stores and sell alcohol and tobacco. We don’t advocate drinking or smoking, but our people have good stable union jobs because those products are taxed and regulated.”

Something else that only the UFCW can do is win attention and support from national political figures who otherwise would keep the marijuana measure at arm’s length. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a recipient of tens of thousands of UFCW dollars, has come out against the measure to legalize marijuana. Will she change her tune now that one of her largest financial supporters is representing the pot industry? Will the UFCW maker Boxer change her tune?

Local 5 President Ron Lind won’t make any promises, as the California UFCW and the California Labor Federation have yet to officially endorse the marijuana ballot measure, but he’s capable of reading–and speaking–between the lines. “We hope that elected officials who are supported by labor are going to take a different look at this issue now that it’s about labor,” he said on Wednesday.

While the UFCW has only gained 100 medical marijuana employees–some from Oaksterdam, more still from a handful of Oakland dispensaries–it hopes to corner the market if Control and Tax passes. “One day down the road, when the big corporations try and move into this industry, we as the pioneers of this industry intend for this industry to be union,” Rush said.

Clare, on the other hand, couldn’t care less if other marijuana groups unionize. “Some will and some won’t,” she said. “And that’s fine.” But in the absence of other institutional allies, “the unions are still going to be working for this industry as a whole.”

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