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It's High Time

Teamsters Organize Legal Marijuana Growers

by DAVID MACARAY

The IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) recently announced that in early September it had organized approximately 40 employees of Marjyn Investments LLC, an Oakland, California, company that grows and processes medical marijuana.

By ratifying a two-year contract (which included wages of up to $26 per hour in the contract’s second year, plus vacation, health insurance and pension benefits), Marjyn’s employees—marijuana gardeners, trimmers, cloners—became members of Teamster Local 70.  Chalk up one for organized labor.

Although marijuana use is illegal under federal law, medical marijuana is permitted under California statutes, and “med-mar” dispensaries are fairly common in the state’s largest cities.  In November, California residents will be asked to vote on Proposition 19, the so-called Marijuana Legalization Initiative, which would finally allow local governments to legalize pot and tax it.

The Marjyn deal will have its skeptics and detractors.  Even though Clint Killian, a Marjyn spokesmen, said that unionization "….benefits the company by giving us a stable, committed workforce in a protected environment," others will demean the partnership:  Who else but the Teamsters (with their checkered past)? they’ll say.

Actually, it didn’t have to happen in California.  If we overlook some obvious hurdles—notably the South’s vehement anti-unionism—it could have happened in Mississippi.  The Magnolia State is home to the Coy W. Waller Laboratory Complex, the federal government’s sprawling, semi-secret marijuana farm, adjacent to the Oxford campus of the University of Mississippi. 

Heavily guarded and securely locked-down, this national marijuana plantation has rightly been nicknamed the “Fort Knox of cannabis.”  With seven different alarm systems, and video cameras regularly monitored by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) in Washington, D.C., the place is part farm, part fortress.  

In conjunction with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Waller Laboratory (established in 1968) grows top-quality government weed and ships it to facilities all around the country, to be used for various research projects.  Waller Laboratory also tests samples of marijuana that have been seized by law enforcement agencies to determine their potency.  A federally owned ganja operation….not too shabby.

And it didn’t have to be the Teamsters.  It could just as easily have been the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), another big-time union that’s always on the lookout for new members.  For the record, it was the Marjyn folks who approached the Teamies, not the other way around.

As for the SEIU (whose former president, Andrew Stern, has been widely criticized for autocratic excesses), it became the first union in U.S. history to organize a group of exotic dancers.  In April of 1997, the employees of the Lusty Lady, a San Francisco strip club, voted 57 to 15 to form the Exotic Dancers Union, thus becoming members of SEIU Local 790.

Like the Marjyn pot growers, the Lusty Lady organizing drive elicited some snickers (some of which came from other unions).  But it was no laughing matter—not to the dancers.  They were being systematically exploited in ways that bosses have been exploiting workers (particularly women) since the beginning of time.  Despite their protests, management made no effort to address the grievances; hence, the decision to seek union membership. 

When the Teamsters and SEIU organize non-traditional groups like strippers and marijuana harvesters, they’re telling the world that they’re willing to go wherever they’re needed, no matter how eccentric the industry or how small the membership.  Let the detractors scoff all they like.  It’s not about perception; it’s about representation.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net