While unions have been part of the American conversation for decades, the rocky road for the cannabis industry is just beginning. In Rock Island, Illinois, cannabis workers are in a fight with harsh and allegedly illegal working conditions as they try to unionize. The state, which will soon be the 11th in the nation to have recreational marijuana, is ramping up for the start of legal sales in January.

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Rock Island, a smaller city of just over 40,000 people, located near the border of Iowa, is shaping to be an important spot for the national conversation about cannabis workers’ rights. However, with an industry not even a decade old in most places, and that's nationally prohibited, workers are still finding their place at the beginning of what could be a billion-dollar industry in the years to come.

What is Happening in Rock Island?

After what workers call months of unfair labor practices, harassment, unlawful intimidation and more, a union has formed at Green Thumb Industries (GTI) along with a fight. The problem now is that Green Thumb Industries is refusing to accept their existence. The ongoing fight has escalated to the local city council, where some councilors, known as Alderman, are asking for the company’s tax breaks to be taken away for violating the law.

According to the Quad-City Times, the union, a part of the Teamster’s Cannabis Union, has filed four complaints since Oct. 10, 2019, that all allege a series of malpractice by the company, including being illicitly polled and being coerced about their union organizing. Another complaint alleges that the company failed to "properly investigate and take preventative measures against workplace harassment and physical threats," and Green Thumb Industries “arbitrarily disciplined an employee in retaliation for union activities.”

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At an October city council meeting, Kyle Meyer, who has worked for two years at GTI, said that throughout his time there he has been faced with unfair labor practices and mandatory overtime while working at the company. “For months, my coworkers and I listened to complaining from managers, supervisors and coworkers about losing benefits, having promised raises unfulfilled and a general lack of organization, and that’s when we decided to form a union,” Meyer said at the meeting.

Now, as fed up workers seek to try and earn back some control on their part, they are facing an uphill battle as the union is not being recognized by Green Thumb Industries. In a statement sent to MJBiz Daily, the company responded that “GTI respects the rights of our employees… One of these fundamental labor rights is the right to freedom of association… The right to freedom of association, however, leaves it to employees to decide whether they wish to be unionized, not an employer or a union (to decide for them)... GTI has not accepted the union’s demand because we believe that all of the employees at the Rock Island facility should be afforded the right to have a say on if they wish to be represented by the Teamsters union.”

However, workers are disputing the company’s claims, saying that they have been ignored for the most part and they have done everything correctly. “We ran a clean campaign and we did everything that we were supposed to. We had majority status and we asked for recognition from GTI on Oct. 10, but GTI refused to even get back to us, despite having multiple notices sent to them,” Meyer said at the council meeting. The subject of the dispute was brought up at a council meeting as some are calling for the nearly million dollar tax break given to the company be returned due to the potentially unlawful activities going on. 

Tax Breaks and Incentives

Last year, the Rock Island City Council unanimously approved a $775,000 incentive package to try and encourage the Chicago-based company to expand its operations in the city. In August 2019, that package increased by $60,000. The incentive will reportedly go toward nearly doubling the size of Green Thumb Industries operations in the city as they prepare for legal cannabis in a couple of months.

“I know Rock Island does tax incentives for GTI, and they are deliberately breaking labor laws and violating the rights of their workers," said Meyer at the meeting. "We're here to ask for support and ask what the city of Rock Island is going to do for its workers that are having our rights violated."

One Alderman, Dylan Parker of Ward 5, stood in support with the workers at the meeting, venting his frustrations toward the malpractice, saying “It does infuriate me that a company that we gave tax breaks to is now violating the law… If you violate the law, you violate the law, whether it’s criminal or labor. So would this city give tax breaks to a common criminal? I don’t think so… If you’re going to be harassing employees, if you’re going to be violating labor laws, you’re not getting tax money from Rock Island citizens.”

There is opposition on the council, with Mayor Mike Thoms later saying that “it's not the city's role to intervene in a private business like that.” Using the company’s apparent absence from the majority of the conversation so far, Thoms continued that “Council didn't hear the other side's point of view, so it's hard to make a determination on who is right or wrong… It's a private industry; it's their business. Not the city's. The business has lived up to its promise on the incentives by adding jobs and adding capital to their building and that's what the city asked for."

The recreational selling date of January has put a lot of strain on the area, as it is expected that the relatively few licensed businesses will quickly face shortages that could put a damper on the industry that could rake in billions of dollars in the next couple of years.  While the fight is not yet over, it remains to be seen how the battle will play out. Green Thumb Industries did not reply for comment.