San Jose union begins organizing pot workers Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer Friday, May 28, 2010 Local 5 President Ron Lind says the national union is "supportive" of the effort. A major California labor union is organizing medical cannabis workers in Oakland, a move that analysts say will help efforts to legalize marijuana and open the door for the union to organize thousands more workers if state voters pass a measure in November to allow recreational marijuana use by adults. The 26,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 in San Jose is believed to be the first union in the country to organize workers in a marijuana-related business. It is considering new job classifications including "bud tender" - a sommelier of sorts who helps medical marijuana users choose the right strain for their ailment. "Union bud tender," said Carl Anderson, executive director of AMCD, an Oakland nonprofit medical cannabis dispensary that is going through the city's permitting process. The dispensary has 15 freshly minted union employees as it readies for an expected opening in December. "With full union health benefits and a pension," Anderson said. With roughly 100 cannabis industry workers in Oakland now in the process of unionizing, the move is mutually beneficial for labor and marijuana advocates. The union, whose membership is dominated by commercial grocery store workers, retail clerks and some agricultural workers, gets to establish a toehold in a growing new pool of cannabis workers. While its membership has been stable compared with those representing other sectors of the economy, the local's rolls fell 5 percent last year as a result of layoffs and reduced hours. Many new jobs foreseen If California voters in November approve the Control and Tax Cannabis initiative, which would legalize marijuana possession and use of small amounts of marijuana for those over 21 and tax it, there could be thousands of new workers ripe for unionizing, said Dan Rush, a Local 5 organizer. In addition to the retail clerks at the dispensaries, union organizers anticipate thousands of new cannabis-processing jobs, agricultural work for growers and security positions at dispensaries. "These will be good union jobs with middle-class incomes," said Ron Lind, the president of Local 5 and a vice president of the 1.3 million-member international union. The union has not officially endorsed November's legalization measure. Those recommendations could come in July. But Lind said the union's national leadership is "supportive" of the local's new outreach and it reflects the interests of members. Removing a stigma Getting unions involved may help destigmatize the legalization issue for union members who don't already support it. A Public Policy Institute of California survey released last week found that 49 percent of likely voters said they think marijuana should be legalized, while 48 percent felt it shouldn't. The poll didn't ask voters whether they thought pot should be regulated and taxed. Other polls show double-digit support for the legalization initiative in November. Easing opposition Seeing a union step into the discussion could melt some opposition. "It does help further legitimize the notion of legalizing and taxing cannabis," said Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, which conducts research and education on labor issues. "Local 5 is a very large and highly respected union. This reflects a change about attitudes about cannabis in this state - and the recognition of the economic realities that California is facing," Jacobs said. While some industries may bristle at unionization, cannabis advocates embraced it. "This is a major step - some are saying it's a game-changer," said Jeff Jones, a pioneer in the medical cannabis movement who is executive director for the Patient ID Center in Oakland, which provides support to medical cannabis users. Fifteen workers there are now unionized. "This is helping to take a movement that had been operating underground and bringing it into the light," said Jones, who is also one of the lead proponents of the November legalization measure. E-mail Joe Garofoli at firstname.lastname@example.org.