By COLIN STAUB
Employees at a Gresham cannabis grow operation walked off the job May 2 in a strike for union recognition. As agricultural workers, they’re not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which means legally their employer doesn’t have to recognize their union. But nothing prevents an agricultural employer from doing so voluntarily.
At CBN Holdings’ facility at 1731 SE Hogan Road in Gresham, about 25 employees grow, harvest, cure, process and package cannabis that’s marketed under the Cannabis Nation label. Back in January, some of them met virtually to talk about on-the-job safety concerns, and afterwards contacted United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555 and began meeting with an organizer.
Then in mid-April, when union supporters began asking coworkers to sign union cards, four were terminated in what Local 555 describes as retaliation for the union campaign.
Justin Brown, one of the terminated union supporters, says employees tried for months to address fire safety concerns, but were ignored.
“We want to know what our alarm system sounds like and that it works,” he told the Labor Press from the picket line May 3. He said workers also want to ensure everyone gets proper training to handle chemicals in the facility, including pesticides and industrial-grade sanitizers.
Apart from the safety concerns, Brown says he and his former coworkers enjoy their work. The job is “one worth fighting for,” he said, which is why they want to unionize.
Brown worked at the facility for six months before being fired in April. He says management decided to review camera footage going back months to find something to fire them over. Brown and two others were fired for tardiness or some form of “time theft.” (Brown recalls being about five minutes late on several occasions.) Another worker was fired for making a rude remark to management. Brown says such infractions would typically elicit a warning before outright termination. Management denies any retaliation.
“The allegation that the company terminated employees due to union efforts is completely false,” said CBN Holdings chief operating officer Matt Hurt in a statement emailed to the Labor Press.
Hurt said the company only learned about the union effort May 2 (the day the strike began) and that just six workers took part in the strike. (Brown said about a dozen were on strike, and that nearly 70% of staff signed union cards.)
Hurt also dismissed safety concerns, saying that the company is responsive to employee complaints and that workers “undergo extensive and ongoing trainings to keep them safe in the workplace.”
Brown, the fired pro-union worker, said Hurt’s response is similar to what workers were told when they raised concerns.
“You know, we’re the ones working there. We’re the ones who are spending eight hours a day actually using the equipment and materials,” he said.
Cannabis workers at a handful of Oregon cannabis dispensaries have unionized with UFCW Local 555. But the National Labor Relations Board considers cannabis growers to be agricultural laborers, meaning they’re not covered by federal labor law.
UFCW is calling on Oregon dispensaries to boycott the sale of CBN Holdings’ products, and for the labor community to support the strike.
“These workers have no government agency to which to appeal their terminations or to demand a fair election process,” said Dan Clay, president of UFCW 555, in a May 2 letter to labor unions. “We fervently hope that one day this loophole is changed by statute. Until then, these workers must look only to themselves and their community, including our allies in the labor movement, to prevail.”
CBN Holdings is connected to five Oregon dispensaries that use the Cannabis Nation name, but the workers are only calling for a boycott of Cannabis Nation branded products, which are all made at the Gresham facility.