Few are pausing to question the growing corporatization of Ontario's flourishing medical marijuana industry
Toronto – March 10, 2016 – Employees of medical marijuana producers are considered agricultural workers, which means they can't unionize in Ontario.
MedReleaf is one of the largest producers of medical marijuana in Canada, registered with Health Canada to manufacture and distribute medical cannabis to customers across the country.
The company, which is particularly popular with armed forces personnel diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), owns and operates a facility in an industrial park in Markham, Ontario.
Last summer, workers contacted UFCW Canada to express their interest in joining Canada's best union. South of the border, the UFCW already represents workers in California, Oregon, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Washington.
Within weeks of contacting UFCW Canada, a majority of MedReleaf's fifty employees signed union cards and applications for certification, which were delivered by the union to both the federal and provincial labour boards.
Since the company was registered with Health Canada and regularly monitored by the RCMP, the union’s position was that the employees should be covered by federal labour law. At the same time, a provincial application was made in the event that the federal labour board rejected jurisdiction over the matter.
The provincial board scheduled a secret ballot vote to be conducted at the Markham facility seven days after the union’s application. In the days leading up to the vote, key leaders openly voiced their support for the union – wearing union hats and t-shirts – and organized numerous gatherings to rally support among their co-workers.
At the time of the application, 35 of the 50 workers at MedReleaf, the majority of whom were Filipino women, were employed through a temp agency. Though more than 60 per cent of the workers originally signed union cards, the union lost the vote.
Both levels of government have seemingly washed their hands of the entire affair.
First, the federal board claimed it does not have jurisdiction over workers in the medical marijuana industry. Then the provincial board deemed MedReleaf to be an agricultural operation, which means that their workers cannot be unionized. How did we arrive at this juncture?
In 1995, soon after the election of Mike Harris, the Conservative provincial government revoked the right of agricultural workers to unionize in Ontario. The Supreme Court ruled the exclusion to be a violation of the Charter and instructed the Ontario government to rewrite the law. The result was the Agricultural Employees Protection Act (AEPA) in 2002, which largely fails to compel employers to recognize the right of farm workers to collectively bargain.
Within days of the labour board decision classifying MedReleaf workers as agricultural employees, the company laid off a half-dozen workers who openly supported the union organizing campaign. In response, UFCW Canada has filed charges of unfair labour practices against the company and additional charges under the AEPA. It has now been nine months since this small group of medical cannabis workers first contacted the union.
If the Ontario government had simply recognized the right of all workers to join a union and be afforded the same protections under the provincial Labour Relations Act, the union’s charges would have been addressed by now in an independent government hearing. This is the judicial process available to every worker who wants to unionize in Ontario – except those who work on farms or produce marijuana.
Today, the production of medical marijuana is one of the fastest-growing sectors of Ontario’s economy. Corporate and political heavyweights like former Liberal health minister George Smitherman and former Conservative premier Ernie Eves are getting in on the action by starting up their own ventures. The promise of the Trudeau government in Ottawa to legalize marijuana will lead to further expansion of the industry. Yet, few have paused to question the corporatization of a unique product that is largely associated with commonly-held virtues like compassion and sharing.
And with the exception of marijuana workers themselves, few have challenged the proliferation of profits over people in this sector of the economy. A blank cheque has been handed to business owners and entrepreneurs. Marijuana workers now join the tens of thousands of workers who grow, harvest, and transport the fruits, vegetables, and livestock that we consume, but they are excluded from the fundamental right to free collective bargaining.
For everyone who has tirelessly campaigned for the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana, it's high time to acknowledge the dramatic difference between a compassionate clinic and a transnational corporation that prefers to keep its workplace union-free. Compassion should not be limited to those who consume marijuana.