Pubdate: Thu, 07 Jul 2016
Source: North Coast Journal (Arcata, CA)
Column: The Week in Weed
Copyright: 2016 North Coast Journal
Author: Colin Trujillo


Union leaders are talking about normal union concerns in a dimly lit 
Arcata bar. There are cocktails all around.

They talk about safety, protecting jobs, keeping wages high, changing 
laws and providing training and education for workers and employers.

Although these sound like run-of-the-mill union concerns, this is not 
your typical union. This is the Humboldt Medical Cannabis Union 
(HMCU), a group working to protect cannabis jobs in Humboldt County 
and bring farmers and workers out from the underground and into legitimacy.

There is a lot of fear in Humboldt about vanishing jobs and a 
shrinking economy.

After all, we have seen this before when the bottoms fell out of 
logging and fishing.

Estimates vary, but some place the value of Humboldt's cannabis 
economy as high as $1 billion and conservative estimates based on 
data from the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office and the California 
Department of Fish and Wildlife suggest the industry employs more 
than 20,000 people.

These are people who spend money in local stores and restaurants, 
raise families and buy homes.

The question then is, as we move toward legalization, how do we keep 
those jobs while making them safer and more reliable?

Humboldt County has the workforce, knowledge base and a lot of the 
infrastructure, but we lag behind the rest of the state when it comes 
to adapting to the new legal climate.

Many growers appear reluctant to go legitimate, fearing lower 
profits, stricter regulations and greater competition. There is an 
outlaw mentality and an old way of doing things that is difficult to 
break away from. Brian Shields, founder of the HMCU, wants to change 
that by bringing the workforce out of the shadows and to the 
forefront of new state regulations.

A lot has changed in the last couple years.

The state finally passed regulations for its 20-year-old medical 
marijuana industry, requiring those who want to grow medical cannabis 
to get a license.

Just this year, through Assembly Bill 26, a bill backed by the United 
Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the Legislature 
decided that in order to get and keep that license, workers must be certified.

The HMCU has been working hard to create one of the first 
certification programs in the state. "The cannabis industry is coming 
into the light and all of these farms are going to have to come into 
compliance," explains Jason Valentin, a HMCU board member and local 
restaurateur who owns Crush and Harvest in Arcata.

Shields says HMCU's certification program would meet all of the 
requirements set out by A.B. 26, including training on current 
medical cannabis commercial cultivation policy, union education and 
history, labor law, California workplace safety requirements and 
sexual harassment training.

It isn't going to happen overnight, but the union is working fast and 
reaching out to other organizations that share its vision.

HMCU will be partnering with True Humboldt to enroll 20 to 30 people 
in a pilot certification program as early as this month.

In order to quickly roll out a certification program that will meet 
state standards, the union is working with local organizations that 
provide similar trainings for more traditional businesses. Shields 
recently had lunch at Lost Coast Brewery with former Humboldt County 
Labor Commissioner Kurt Barthel, who said he's been waiting for 
someone to approach him about this for 30 years.

The Humboldt County Agriculture Department is going to offer training 
on safe handling of pesticides and fertilizers to union members free of charge.

There is a lot of community interest in protecting Humboldt's 
economy, environment and people.

Not only does unionization have the potential to help the industry 
but it can also protect workers.

Sexual harassment training is not only required by the state but 
essential to protecting some of the industry's most vulnerable 
workers, especially trimmers.

Ellyn Henderson, who co-founded HMCU with Shields, started working in 
the industry as a trimmer when she was 15 years old. "After eight 
years of being a trimmer and two years as a scene manager, I knew 
there was a need." says Henderson, who holds an environmental policy 
degree from Humboldt State University. "Sexual harassment is 
definitely prevalent."

It's easy to see how training on safety and sexual harassment could 
protect workers and employers in Humboldt, but how does it protect 
wages and jobs? HMCU believes Humboldt County becoming the first in 
the state to have certified workers and farms would go a long way. 
After all, it isn't a matter of bringing new jobs into the area, but 
of keeping the ones we have as the industry undergoes a major paradigm shift.

When it comes to wages, the union is banking on businesses paying 
more for highly skilled and well trained workers. "How do you justify 
paying $200 a pound for trimmers?" asks Shields. "You do it by having 
well trained and educated trimmers."

Shields isn't the only one who believes that well trained, safe 
workers are better for business.

Bryan Willkomm, general manager of the Humboldt Patient Resource 
Center (HPRC) in Arcata, says the dispensary's staff enjoy 
competitive pay, benefits, free gym memberships and an OSHA compliant 

HPRC has been operating in Arcata for 17 years and, according to 
Willkomm, has "been in a constant state of flux with new permits, 
federal threats, new regulations, conditional use permits, commercial 
cannabis activity permits, building codes, OSHA compliance, ADA 
access, and more." Willkomm says the first cannabis union he heard of 
in the marketplace was "stifled with corruption and bribes and did 
not truly dedicate itself to cannabis industry workers." Still the 
HPRC would be open to hearing from any union that operates 
transparently, Wilkomm says, adding that its 18 employees would never 
be forbidden from unionizing.

The HMCU is growing, having nearly doubled in size from 11 to 20 
members over the last six months.

Still membership only represents a tiny fraction of the estimated 
20,000 people currently working in the black/grey market.

A lot of people are still reluctant to come into the open. Michael 
Kraft, a senior project manager at Sequoia Personnel Services, expert 
on local labor issues and former head of the Northern California 
Small Business Development Center, believes one of the biggest 
challenges will be getting people to come forward and fill out 
paperwork that could potentially land them on a list or in a database.

Multiple growers were contacted for this story but none were willing 
to be publicly identified or to speak on the record.

While some farms are eager to be among the first to legitimize, many 
farmers and workers have a "wait and see" attitude.

Willkomm agrees the transition will be hard for local some local 
farmers. "Understanding that your trimmers can no longer work 12 
hours straight without proper facilities for bathroom use and 
scheduled breaks, and that gardeners must be protected with safe 
pesticide application information and equipment is tough for some 
individuals," he says. He believes many farmers are making the extra 
effort to be compliant, but it is challenging when the legal 
landscape is continually changing.

In the meantime, HMCU's certification program is moving forward and 
the union is still actively courting new members.

HMCU's vision for the future includes not just training, but 
providing a certified labor pool as well. Currently, membership dues 
are $25 a month.

Will Shields and Henderson succeed in their lofty goals of protecting 
the local economy, workers, farmers and the environment? Time will 
tell, but the potential benefits are undeniable. The union is happy 
to take new members, but the goal is really to protect the people 
that are already here, who have been here - the local community.

According to Shields "you need a unified voice for the community.

HMCU is that voice."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom