How did employees at an illegal marijuana dispensary unionize? Easy, it’s totally legal

This story originally published here.

Criminals can unionize — or at least they can if they’re running an illegal marijuana dispensary.

Forty employees at a Canna Clinic medical marijuana dispensary in Toronto have joined Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union. Employees at the Broadview Avenue location were mostly concerned with safety and staff training, according to Katha Fortier, Unifor’s Assistant to the National President.

Fortier believes it’s the first time that employees from a marijuana dispensary have unionized in Canada.

Selling marijuana from a storefront remains illegal in Canada. The federal government introduced legislation this spring to legalize the drug by July 2018. But until then, the only legal way to obtain medical marijuana is through the mail from producers licensed by Health Canada.

“In spite of efforts by the marijuana dispensary people to get people to believe that there is a grey area in the law, there is no grey area,” said Mark Pugash, the director of corporate communications for the Toronto Police. “Unless you are licensed by the federal government to sell marijuana, you are breaking the law.”

So how did employees of an illegal dispensary join a union? Easy: they satisfied all the requirements for certifying a union listed in the Ontario Labour Relations Act. Running a entirely legal business is not one of them.

“Canna Clinic holds itself out as a national legitimate business, presumably pays taxes like other businesses, and it hires employees,” David Doorey, a labour law professor at York University, wrote in an email. “Like all employers, it is expected to comply with employment laws, including the Labour Relations Act which permits employees to unionize.”

Even if employees work for a business engaging in illegal activities, they don’t stop being employees, he said.

“They just become employees of a law-breaking employer.  Sadly, we have more than a few of those in Canada,” he wrote.

Trade unions must apply for certification from the Ontario Labour Relations Board, an independent tribunal that issues decisions about labour issues. If a group of employees meet the requirements of the Labour Relations Act to join a union — two major ones being that people in the proposed bargaining units are “employees” and that the request came from “trade union” as defined by the act — then the Board will certify the trade union to represent those employees.

Law enforcement and labour relations are totally separate areas in government, Ministry of Labour spokesperson Janet Deline said.

The Ministry of the Attorney-General is responsible for enforcing the Criminal Code and Health Canada provides licences to marijuana producers. The Ministry of Labour, meanwhile, is strictly concerned with issues like workplace health and safety.

That means all employees can unionize, whether they’re selling drugs or involved in some other illegal activity.

“Every worker has the right to unionize if they are considered a worker and an employee,” Deline said. “The Labour Relations Act doesn’t get involved in the type of business.”

Every worker has the right to unionize

Employees at the Canna Clinic weren’t eager to talk about the union. A man at the reception desk said he doesn’t “care either way” and wouldn’t comment further. Another woman at the dispensary told the Post that unionizing is a sensitive issue, and said employees are unlikely to speak about it until “things settle down.”

Unifor will receive an official certification letter from the Ontario Labour Relations Board in the next two weeks. After that, the bargaining unit will elect a bargaining committee and negotiate their first contract between Canna Clinic and its employees.

“It’s no different than any other employees who come to us to represent them,” said Unifor’s Katha Fortier. “People want to make sure they are properly trained, that the employer is providing as safe an environment as they possibly can for the workers.”

She said police raids were a risk “before and after the union”, and that won’t change now that Unifor represents the workers. But it’s clear that marijuana will soon be legal, and employees in the industry want a workplace that’s as safe as possible, she said.

“This is, no pun intended, a growing industry,” she said. “In one form or another, more workers will be in this industry.”

This story originally published here.