Union drive at WeedMD takes another twist

The situation has landed the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), the continent’s largest construction union, in a weedy predicament

Cannabis employees are considered agricultural workers in Ontario which means they can't unionize.

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An effort to unionize workers at Ontario cannabis company WeedMD just got more complicated for the labour movement.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has been trying to organize at the medpot company’s Strathroy and Aylmer facilities.

Kevin Shimmin, a national representative with UFCW, says workers contacted the union a few weeks ago over working conditions. He says allegations against the company include that it “terminated one or more employees for exercising their rights” to sign union cards.

WeedMD denies the allegations, issuing a statement on March 27 saying that the company “greatly value and respect the contributions of our employees, and we take their health and safety very seriously.”

But the situation has landed the 57,000-member Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), the continent’s largest construction union, in an awkward position.

Last December, WeedMD acquired Starseed Holdings Inc., a medical cannabis company that doesn’t produce cannabis, but purchases wholesale to supply unions whose members are covered by insurance for medical cannabis.

Starseed, which was acquired for $25 million, supplies LiUNA’s members who need medical cannabis. According to an open letter published by WeedMD CEO Angelo Tsebelis, the company also has partnerships with LiUNA local 1059, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, as well as the Insulators Local 95 Health and Welfare Trust Fund.

Victoria Mancinelli, LiUNA’s director of communications, says in an interview that LiUNA’s investment is actually through the LiUNA Pension Fund of Central and Eastern Canada and that the relationship is “only as far as [the Fund is] invested in medicinal cannabis to combat opioid use across the industry.”

She says “LiUNA plays absolutely no role in the day-to-day management of WeedMD” and “has no prior knowledge” of complaints of working conditions that have been levelled by UFCW. She says LiUNA would be “raising them with WeedMD management immediately.”

Neither LiUNA Local 1059 nor its pension fund responded to requests for comment.

UFCW Canada, whose American counterpart has represented cannabis workers in dispensaries and production facilities in the U.S., has been involved in efforts to organize workers at a number of Licensed Producers in Canada.

But those attempts have proven unsuccessful. That’s because cannabis workers are classified as agricultural workers and are therefore covered under the Agricultural Employees Protection Act (AEPA), not the Labour Relations Act in Ontario, which UFCW says is a barrier to unionization.

“There are no enforcement mechanisms,” Shimmin says. “We’ve tried many times to unionize agribusiness and greenhouses outside of the cannabis sector,” Shimmin says. “And of course, in all those cases, the employers completely ignored our requests to bargain.”

NOW Magazine spoke to two former WeedMD employees who say the company failed to address concerns that were raised.

When asked about specific allegations, WeedMD vice president of communications and corporate affairs Marianella delaBarrera says “While I won’t comment on specific internal employee matters, we do take the health and safety of our employees very seriously.” She says that “WeedMD is in full compliance with Health Canada’s regulations and the Ministry of Labour’s guidelines and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.”

Shimmin says UFCW has sent WeedMD a notice to bargain and the company has responded by asking for proof of union membership, following receipt of which the union is invited to send a bargaining proposal. 


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