Medical marijuana workers’ rights go up in smoke

Few are pausing to question the growing corporatization of Ontario's flourishing medpot industry after union drive at one of Canada's largest manufacturers goes poof


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 PTSD, owns and operates a facility in a warehouse on a busy street in an industrial park in Markham just north of Toronto.

Last summer, workers contacted the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. South of the border, the union already represents workers in California, Oregon, Minnesota, New Mexico and Washington. Within weeks of contacting UFCW, a majority of MedReleaf’s 50 employees signed union cards and applications for certification were delivered 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 case the federal board rejected jurisdiction over the matter.

The provincial board scheduled a secret ballot vote to be conducted at the Markham facility seven days following 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. Then the provincial board, mere weeks before Christmas, deemed MedReleaf to be an agricultural company, which means their workers cannot be unionized. How did we arrive at this juncture?

In 1995, soon after the election of Mike Harris, the PC 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, but it largely fails to obligate employers to recognize the right to collective bargaining.

Within days of the latest labour board decision classifying MedReleaf workers as agricultural, the company laid off a half dozen workers who openly supported the union campaign. In response, UFCW has filed charges of unfair labour practices against the company and additional charges under the AEPA. It has now been eight 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 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 PC premier Ernie Eves are getting in on the action, 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 which 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 business owners and entrepreneurs. Marijuana workers now join the tens of thousands of workers who grow, harvest and transport the fruits, vegetables and livestock we consume, yet are excluded from the fundamental right to free collective bargaining.

For everyone who has tirelessly campaigned for decriminalization or legalization, it’s high time to acknowledge the dramatic difference between a compassion clinic and a transnational corporation which prefers to keep its workplace union-free. Compassion should not be limited to those who consume marijuana.         

Kevin Shimmin is a National Representative for UFCW Canada.

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