Production workers at a Southwestern Ontario cannabis company could be the first in Canada’s marijuana industry to unionize, a move one union official hopes will create a “ripple effect” across the sector.
Employees at WeedMD, a London-headquartered company with more than 200 workers at its operations in Strathroy, Aylmer and Bowmanville, have been signing union cards with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union over the past three weeks, national representative Kevin Shimmin said Wednesday.
Representing 250,000 workers across Canada, UFCW wants to begin negotiating a contract with the company next week, Shimmin said.
“We’re hoping that with enough public attention, the people who are consuming cannabis, both medicinally and recreationally, are looking for an ethical employer,” he said.
“We’re hoping that enough public pressure will come to bear on this company and they will sit down and start bargaining.”
The union drive has huge significance across Canada, where more than 10,000 people are employed in the cannabis industry. That includes more than 2,000 in Southwestern Ontario, a region that has carved out a niche as a cannabis belt because of its proximity to 400-series highways, its embrace of the sector and an abundance of labour and farmland.
“This is a long time coming,” Ian Dawkins, a Vancouver-based cannabis consultant, said of the WeedMD unionization effort, calling it a sign the marijuana sector is maturing.
“The needs of workers and the strains on them are going to continue to worsen, until we figure out formal way of dealing with (the problems) like we do in other industries.”
Shimmin said the push to unionize started earlier this month when workers reached out to UFCW, prompting the union to start recording employee concerns and signing members.
Staffers aired grievances about health and safety issues, including elevated carbon monoxide levels in grow rooms, pesticides being sprayed on plants while workers were present, too many workers packed in rooms and a staffer fired for helping organize the union drive, said Shimmin, who wouldn’t disclose how many workers have signed up.
A WeedMD spokesperson said the company supports its workers’ right to organize but denies all of the union’s claims.
“We’ve reviewed some of the allegations that they’re making and these allegations are baseless, without merit,” Marianella delaBarrera said.
“While we cannot comment on specific internal employee matters, we can say that we take the health and safety of our employees very seriously,” delaBarrera said, noting WeedMD is in full compliance with all federal and provincial regulations.
The company was nominated by its staff for a local business magazine’s 2020 best employer award, which the company won, Delabarrera added.
Cannabis production workers in Ontario are considered agricultural employees and fall under the provincial Agricultural Employees Protection Act, legislation that the UFCW claims violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by failing to protect the right of freedom of association rights for workers. The act sets out a different process for unionizing workers than the route laid out in other Ontario labour law.
“It’s a very weak piece of legislation,” Shimmin said.
UFCW has bargained union contracts for cannabis workers in California, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Minnesota and New Mexico. Last year, it unionized and ratified a collective agreement for call centre workers at the Ontario Cannabis Store, the government-run marijuana wholesaler and delivery service.
Shimmin said he’s hopeful the WeedMD union drive will lead to a push by others in the industry to follow suit.
“We’ve signed cards with other production workers at other facilities in Ontario, but we haven’t gotten to this point (of seeking bargaining dates),” he said. “So we’re hoping this causes a ripple effect, so that it would show workers that, yes, indeed it is possible to get unionized.”