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Big pot joints big labor

By J. DeVoy

Despite the decline of organized labor in the United States with sagging manufacturing, construction and transportation sectors – areas long associated with unionized workforces – the Teamsters union has made inroads with medical marijuana growers. (source.)

The Teamsters added nearly 40 new members earlier this month by organizing the country’s first group of unionized marijuana growers. Such an arrangement is likely only possible in California, which has the loosest U.S. medical marijuana laws.

But it’s still unclear how the Teamsters will safeguard the rights of members who do work that’s considered a federal crime.

“I didn’t have this planned out when I became a Teamster 34 years ago, to organize marijuana workers,” said Lou Marchetti, who acted as a liaison between the growers and Oakland-based Teamsters Local 70. “This is a whole new ballgame.”

In the interest of fairness, the author bloodies the Teamsters’ collective nose a bit.  The union has a storied history, and its members are not strangers to sideways glances from Johnny Law.

Historically, the Teamsters are no strangers to entanglements with federal law enforcement, from the infiltration of the union by organized crime to the disappearance of union leader Jimmy Hoffa. If the federal government decided to crack down on [the indoor marijuana grower at issue], Marchetti said the union was still figuring out how it might intervene.

Still, there are unresolved issues as to the labor classification of these workers.  Depending on how the employees are classified by law, their employment may not be within the scope of the National Labor Relations Act and under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, making their organization less effective.  Remedies within California – which is the most populous state in the country and arguably just as good as the Federal government in many respects – could still be available to the freshly unionized employees, though.

Michael Leong, assistant regional director for the Oakland office of the National Labor Relations Board, said he did not know of any case in which the federal government had been asked to mediate a dispute involving a business that was blatantly illegal under federal law.

He also said it wasn’t clear if the new Teamsters would count as farmworkers, which would put them outside the NLRB’s domain.

Michael Lee, general counsel for the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, said the growers probably would qualify as agricultural workers. Any conflict between workers and the union would likely fall under his board’s jurisdiction, but contract disputes between workers and management would have to be decided in state court.

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