BC budtenders make history as first private dispensary in Canada to unionize

Apr 20 2021, 9:41 am

Cannabis workers in BC recently secured a massive victory as budtenders at Clarity Cannabis made history as the first private dispensary in Canada to unionize.

Passionate about their professions but feeling bogged down by low wages, lack of benefits, and the absence of upward mobility that dominates the industry today, the workers formed the BC BUD division and joined forces with UFCW 1518 to reform their working conditions.

The big win, which was ratified in February of this year, is a huge step towards having cannabis workers recognized as skilled workers and professionals. On a day-to-day basis, the move has spelled significantly better wages and workplace improvements for workers.

For Emma Riderelli, a self-proclaimed “cannabis activist” who’s been working in the industry for three years, unionizing was about “having the chance to advocate for my coworkers.”

Indeed, solidarity in the face of poor working conditions and insufficient wages — all in the midst of a pandemic where cannabis workers have been deemed essential — has spurred a growing movement of cannabis employees looking to consolidate their power.

“On top of the many things that we help workers win in their collective agreements, workers stand to gain more respect at work, more say in the things that matter to them, improved health and safety of their workplace, and more power,” says Kim Novak, President of UFCW 1518.

Through negotiations, in the end, the budtenders at Clarity were successful in acquiring sizeable wage increases, scheduled raises, improved safety protocols, paid sick days, benefits, paid breaks, additional vacation time, advanced scheduling, and cannabis sommelier training.

For Riderelli, the contrast between pre- and post-union life is palpable. “Not only did the conditions of my work improve, but I was also able to connect with so many other community members who want their voices to be heard. We want all cannabis workers to earn a living wage, and one way to do that is by banding together and organizing for better jobs,” she tells us.

As the movement continues to garner momentum, job legitimacy and vocational opportunities remain at the forefront of the values being championed. This is why the budtenders, who liken their work to that of a wine sommelier, were also able to acquire cannabis sommelier training as part of their amended contracts.

Among the most interesting benefits, the workers were able to secure is a tasting and store discount, which stipulates budtenders are allowed to purchase up to 30 grams of non-medical cannabis per day at cost for all new product strains that are on weekly special.

Earlier this year, the union was also able to restore pandemic pay for Clarity employees who have continued to put themselves at risk throughout the pandemic to provide an essential service.

But the workers at Clarity aren’t the only ones to have struck union gold (or green, we should say). Employees of Potanicals Green Growers recently became the first cannabis growing operation and extraction facility in Canada to unionize, propelling the movement forward and earning paid sick days, a clear wage scale, and grievance procedures for its members.

Though there’s much workers stand to gain from unionizing, concerns surrounding how employers will treat workers who look into organizing are common. “Thankfully unionizing is an enshrined right in Canada,” Riderelli — who was able to reassure apprehensive coworkers — tells us. “Unionizing quelled the worries we had before finalizing the process, and in turn, made us feel more secure in our positions.”

When we press Novak for any advice she might have for employees who are nervous to take the next steps toward unionizing, she encourages “a no-strings-attached conversation with one of our union organizers, who will listen to your concerns.”

For UFCW, it’s about the bigger picture and empowering workers to locate resources that can solve their problems at work. “We’re here to help workers navigate the future of work and build sustainable, safe, and rewarding careers,” adds Novak.

UFCW 1518 is continuing to push for better working conditions for cannabis workers and hopes that the wins they’ve been able to secure on behalf of its 26,000 union members will prompt other BC dispensaries to recognize the hard work of their staff.

“At the end of the day, it was the solidarity of our staff, the work of my BCBUD co-founder Adelaide, and the patience of our union rep walking us through the process step by step that got us to where we are, and I couldn’t be more thankful,” says Riderelli.

To join the fight for fairness, or for more information about joining a union, you can visit ufcw1518.com/cannabis.

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