Workers at the Thomaston Wellness Connection medical marijuana dispensary in March 2013. - Photo by Andy O’Brien
Workers at the Thomaston Wellness Connection medical marijuana dispensary in March 2013. - Photo by Andy O’Brien
In a groundbreaking decision handed down last week, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has recognized that federal labor law protects workers in the medical marijuana industry.

According to an announcement from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the federal government has authorized a complaint absent settlement of charges that Wellness Connection of Maine, the largest medical marijuana dispensary chain in the state, violated the National Labor Relations Act by retaliating against employees and attempting to prevent them from exercising their right to join the union. The complaints filed with the NLRB allege that in February and April of 2013, the organization unlawfully disciplined workers and interfered with their right to join the UFCW by interrogating them, creating a climate of surveillance, and soliciting the members to oppose the union. According to the UFCW, the NLRB also found merit to the charges that the company maintained "several overly broad confidentiality policies that unlawfully prevented employees from discussing their wages and working conditions."

Although medical marijuana is legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia, the drug's status is in conflict with federal law as it is still classified as an illegal drug. However, according to the UFCW, which represents thousands of cannabis workers in six states and the District of Columbia, the NLRB decision helps to legitimize the employment status and acknowledges labor rights of all workers in the industry.

"Regardless of the morass that surrounds the cannabis industry right now, there are fundamental rights that every worker has," said UFCW spokesman Evan Yeats. "That includes the right to come together as a group and to speak up about the problems you have at the workplace."

Wellness Connection would not comment on the specifics of the settlement, preferring to speak through Matt LaMourie of the Portland law firm Preti Flaherty, which represented the organization in the case.

"[Wellness Connection's] objective is to provide the best patient care they can for their patients in Maine and it's not a productive exercise to look back on the events of 2013," said LaMourie. "They're moving ahead and they are looking forward to building a productive relationship with their employees."
According to former Wellness Connection employee Ian Brodie of Portland, the alleged violations began last February when workers at a marijuana cultivation site in Auburn organized a walk-out to protest the quality of the product, unhealthy working conditions and the use of pesticides on the plants in violation of state law.

"Prior to the union activity, we had gotten to a point where people as individuals were trying to raise their voices to say, 'Hey, this isn't right. The building isn't right. There's things wrong with the medicine and the working environment.' People were starting to have some minor lung problems," said Brodie. "We needed answers and they weren't willing to speak to us as individuals, so a few of us got together and compounded a list of everything that needed to change."

A month after the workers made their demands, Brodie said the organization still had not made any improvements, so the group decided to form a union and contacted the UFCW. Workers at other Wellness Connection sites, including employees at the Thomaston growing facility, also expressed interest in joining with the UFCW. Shortly after, they complained to the state Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services (DLRS) about Wellness Connection's practices. On March 26 of 2013, DLRS announced a laundry list of violations at Wellness Connection's growing facilities and four medical marijuana dispensaries located around the state. The DLRS cited the use of pesticides in the growing of medical marijuana and the lack of proper security among the more than 20 violations of state rules governing medical marijuana.

The state leveled an $18,000 fine against the organization, while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Wellness Connection $14,000 for health and safety violations. A Department of Health and Human Services spokesman confirmed that Wellness Connection had since come into full compliance with the consent decree. Last year, the Legislature also passed a bill allowing the use of "minimum risk" pesticides on medical marijuana, which are similar to the ones the organization was fined for.

In April of last year, employees held a protest across the street from Wellness Connection's Portland dispensary over its treatment of workers, but the case remained quiet up until recently. According to Yeats of the UFCW, the settlement will not result in any financial penalty as federal labor law typically just requires employers to pledge not to interfere with union activity and to revoke any disciplinary actions or firings related to organizing. Wellness still has not recognized the union and no formal union election has been held.