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Push to unionize Massachusetts marijuana industry heats up

Workers at New England Treatment Access dispensary in Brookline set to vote by mail after NLRB ruling

Employees of the New England Treatment Access (NETA) marijuana store in Brookline prepare to greet customers last year.
Employees of the New England Treatment Access (NETA) marijuana store in Brookline prepare to greet customers last year.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A fight over the rights of Massachusetts marijuana workers is heating up, with union leaders launching organizing campaigns at more cannabis companies and a pivotal election looming at the one of the state’s most prominent pot operators.

About 100 employees of the New England Treatment Access (NETA) marijuana store in Brookline are set to vote whether to unionize beginning next week, when ballots for an unusual mail-in election will be sent by federal labor officials; they are due back July 21.

Workers typically vote in person at their place of employment. But a local chapter of United Food and Commercial Workers, which is leading the push to unionize the state’s nearly 10,000 marijuana workers, petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to authorize a mail-in election.

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Over objections from NETA, the federal board approved the request, agreeing with union leaders that a traditional election could needlessly expose workers to the coronavirus and exclude sick or quarantined employees.

“The safety of all involved cannot be guaranteed during a manual election,” Paul Murphy, the New England region’s acting NLRB director, wrote in his May 29 decision. “Many of those infected with COVID-19 are not symptomatic . . . In addition, there is no need to offer symptomatic employees the choice between forfeiting their right to vote and violating quarantine.”

NETA, which was purchased last year by the multistate cannabis firm Parallel, had argued that the election should be held in the Brookline dispensary’s parking lot later this summer. That would have given the company more time to campaign against unionization, though executives insisted their stance was meant to boost turnout and ensure the integrity of the vote.

“In-person elections help guarantee that employees can submit secret ballots and can’t be influenced by their peers or managers, because they’re voting in the presence of an NLRB official,” NETA president Amanda Rositano said.

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The back-and-forth is just the latest skirmish in an increasingly bitter contest between NETA and the union, which has accused the firm of using the COVID-19 pandemic and related two-month shutdown of the Massachusetts recreational marijuana industry as an excuse to fire dozens of prounion workers.

“When we look at our database, it clearly shows NETA was selective with whom they were laying off,” said Fabricio DaSilva, organizing director for UFCW Local 1445. “They literally just did it for the purpose of breaking the union support.”

Rositano staunchly denied that charge, saying NETA used “a very defensible” method of selecting workers to be fired based on their tenure and performance.

“No subjectivity went into the process,” she said, noting the firm still employs many union supporters.

Rositano also acknowledged “a consistent trickling of concerns” from employees about unsafe working conditions and mold infestations at NETA’s large cannabis growing and processing facility in Franklin, where the union is trying to organize several hundred workers. However, she said, investigations by the state Cannabis Control Commission and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration had failed to substantiate the complaints.

In general, she said, NETA "already offers progressive wages and benefits and really great programs we’re proud of, and we don’t think a union is necessary or needed.”

The UFCW successfully unionized its first Massachusetts cannabis firm last fall, and says it is now engaged with workers at over a dozen other marijuana facilities in the state. Union officials said the campaign is motivated by the challenges in other states with more mature cannabis sectors, where low-paid workers have not shared meaningfully in legal pot’s growing spoils.

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The group’s Local 1445 chapter has also accused iAnthus Capital Holdings subsidiary Mayflower Medicinals of retaliating against prounion workers at its Holliston cultivation and processing facility; an election is scheduled to be held there on July 7. Meanwhile, another union affiliate has secured a mail-in election at Curaleaf’s Hanover marijuana dispensary, with ballots due June 24.

While they agree on little else, industry and union leaders each said the election at NETA’s Brookline store — one of the busiest pot shops in the country — will be a closely watched indicator of just how much momentum is behind the union’s efforts.

“NETA is the company that’s going to set the example,” DaSilva said. “If we let them get away with these Walmart-style antiunion games, it’s going to have a chilling effect on other workers, and it’s going to inspire other companies that are waiting on the sidelines to invest in anti-union campaigns.”

Conversely, he added, “a victory at NETA would show that workers can come together for fairness and justice even when it’s really difficult.”


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.