What’s Ontario got against cannabis workers?

Last month, the B.C. labour board conducted a union vote at Tilray’s cannabis facility in Nanaimo. While the ballot box is currently sealed, it could become the first cannabis producer to be unionized in Canada.

Stateside, the United Food and Commercial Workers union already has collective agreements at cannabis production facilities in California, Oregon, Minnesota, New Mexico, Washington and Colorado.

In Ontario, meanwhile, government lawyers are working with the agribusiness lobby to blunt efforts by the United Food & Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW) to unionize workers at MedReleaf, a large medical marijuana producer.

The Ontario Labour Relations Board has already deemed cannabis production workers (those handling the live plant) to be agricultural. That decision back in 2016 effectively blocked attempts by MedReleaf workers to unionize. 

UFCW appealed the decision to the Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Tribunal where hearings are currently underway. This is the third time in the last two decades that UFCW has fought the Ontario government over the issue.

In Ontario, the Harris government revoked agricultural workers’ rights to organize in 1995. The union argues that Ontario’s exclusion of agricultural workers from the Labour Relations Act violates the Charter. 

In fact, 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 in 2002. But the Act does not include an effective mechanism for collective bargaining or grievance arbitration.

Lawyers for the agribusiness lobby, together with their counterparts from the Ontario government, argue that unionization will jeopardize the “family farm.” 

However, from the union’s point of view, efforts to unionize agricultural workers have never been about the “family farm.” It has always been about improving the working conditions of employees at large, industrial agribusinesses.

The classification of cannabis production as agricultural has made the “family farm” argument absurd. Certainly, consumers might be troubled to know that their weed is being grown and harvested under such politically-charged circumstances.

Kevin Shimmin is an organizer for United Food & Commercial Workers Canada.


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