Workers at three medical marijuana businesses in Oakland will announce Friday that they have unionized, another step in a concerted campaign aimed at bringing legitimacy to a once-hidden sector of the state's economy and boosting the marijuana-legalization initiative.
Union representatives and the business owners believe it is the first time that workers in the nation's growing medical marijuana industry have joined a union.
"They want the community to understand them as decent, hard-working people," said Dan Rush, who oversees special operations for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 5.
The numbers are small, Rush concedes — about 100 new members. But he believes the potential for new jobs — and union members — is enormous.
Rush, who lives in Oakland, saw marijuana businesses helping to revive a sketchy area not far from his home. He studied the legalization initiative on the November ballot. And he concluded that his union ought to tap the emerging industry and push to expand it.
He worked to persuade the employees that the union could help advance their cause. The businesses include the firm owned by Richard Lee, who is sponsoring the initiative. Lee runs a handful of operations, including a dispensary and Oaksterdam University, which teaches classes about marijuana.
Lee has staked the success of his initiative on persuading voters that the drug ought to be regulated and taxed like any business, and he thinks the successful union drive bolsters this argument.
"It's another validation of the idea that the cannabis industry is a legitimate industry that creates taxpaying jobs," he said.
Lee is also hoping that the local, which has about 26,000 members in the state, can help win the initiative an endorsement from the California Labor Federation. "They have a lot of political muscle," he said.
That would be a coup, said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.
"It would be a huge difference because unions have boots on the ground," he said. "The question is whether this is actually going to be a major priority for organized labor at a time when the state has over 12% unemployment."
John Lovell, a lobbyist organizing an opposition campaign, credited Lee for the effort.
"He's scrambling. He's trying to do different things. I get that," Lovell said. "I just don't think it's going to be successful."
Rush and Ron Lind, president of Local 5, said they are working to win a labor federation endorsement and will highlight the measure's job potential.
The initiative would allow Californians to grow and possess pot, but also let cities and counties legalize the cultivation and sales of marijuana and hemp.
"I'm guessing there would be thousands of workers, if it passes," Lind said.
The new union members also include workers at the Patient ID Center, which provides medical marijuana identification cards, and AMCD, which hopes to become one of Oakland's newest dispensaries.
"We're 100% union," said Carl Anderson, AMCD's chairman. "It brings credibility to what we are doing."