Roughly 20 employees at two marijuana dispensaries operating without permits in Pasadena have joined the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770. Pictured: A budtender pours out flower available to medical marijuana patients at Private Organic Therapy (P.O.T.), a non-profit co-operative medical marijuana dispensary, on October 19, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (David McNew, Getty Images file)

Protect yo-self: California dispensaries unionize as marijuana legalization moves forward

Roughly 20 employees at two marijuana dispensaries operating without permits in Pasadena have joined the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770, as further evidence of the growing alliance between organized labor and the rapidly emerging retail marijuana industry.

The city has been trying unsuccessfully for years to shut down dispensaries in the city, including the now unionized Golden State Collective on North Mentor Avenue.

“These dispensaries that we’ve organized are two of the oldest operating dispensaries in the city,” said Rigoberto Valdez, director of organizing with UFCW Local 770. “I think the time is now for the medical marijuana patients, the workers and the community to come together and figure out what the regulatory scheme is going to be.”

The two dispensaries, Golden State and UFD Apothecary, are the first dispensaries to join UCFW 770 outside of Los Angeles. Employees say they voted to unionize for job protection, better wages and benefits.

UFCW began signing labor agreements in 2010 with dispensaries in the Bay Area. And the union backed Proposition 64, a ballot measure that legalized marijuana for adults while establishing a licensing and regulatory system for businesses.

The union plans to take on an advocacy role in Pasadena too, where members hope to convince the Pasadena City Council to overturn a ban on dispensaries in light of the passage of Prop. 64 and new state regulations in place for medical marijuana.

UCFW is one of the largest unions for dispensary employees in Southern California. President Rick Icaza said the industry is “positioned to become the fastest growing segment” of the union. UCFW 770 is responsible for unionization efforts in Los Angeles and UCFW Local 324 in March organized Orange County’s first unionized dispensary.

UCFW’s efforts to tap into the growing pot industry could offset declining memberships in unions both nationally and statewide.

Union membership has fallen from 20.1 percent of the U.S. workforce in 1983 to 11.1 percent in 2015.

The drop has been less severe in California, which had 15.9 percent union membership in 2015 – down from 18.9 percent in 1989.

The marijuana industry, on the other hand, just keeps growing.

At least half a dozen dispensaries operate in Pasadena despite the city’s ban. Some have existed for more than a decade. At least two, including Golden State, fall within Councilman Victor Gordo’s district.

“At the moment, dispensaries are not allowed in Pasadena and unless the council votes to change that position, these dispensaries are unlawful,” said Gordo, a union attorney in his day job. “The issue of whether or not they are unionized is irrelevant in my view. We have zoning laws and they should be respected and enforced.”

He added that the matter of how Pasadena should handle marijuana is likely to come back before the City Council in “the not too distant future.”

The city sued Golden State and other dispensaries in an effort to shut them down and won in court earlier this year, but that decision was appealed in September. Golden State has not stopped serving customers in the meantime.

Dispensary operators proposed a ballot measure in September that would force the city to allow their operations, but not enough signatures were collected before the cut off for the April election.

“If we see that the city is unwilling to collaborate with the union on enacting an ordinance, I think that is something we may want to do,” Valdez said.

City staff previously proposed amending an ordinance to allow medical marijuana delivery from licensed agents earlier this year, but the matter has yet to reach the city council. Council members have suggested a more extensive review of the city’s ordinances is necessary.

Brooke Edwards Staggs contributed to this report.

This story was first published on