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A measure to help Oregon cannabis workers unionize is headed to November ballot, labor group says

Two people carrying large cardboard boxes outdoors. One box has the words "BASIC DUTY" on it.
Submitted photo
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UCFW Local 555
Dan Clay, president of UFCW Local 555, prepares to submit boxes of signatures to state elections officials on July 5, 2024. The union is pushing hoping to qualify a ballot measure that would help cannabis workers unionize.

One of Oregon’s largest labor unions failed last year to convince lawmakers to make it easier for some cannabis workers to unionize.

Now the union is spending big to get the law passed another way.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 said Monday that it expects to qualify a measure on the November ballot that would require owners of cannabis dispensaries and processors to allow workers to unionize without interfering.

The union, which represents tens of thousands of retail and grocery workers across Oregon, says it submitted more than 163,000 signatures to state elections officials by the deadline last Friday. That’s well over the 117,173 required, raising the likelihood that enough signatures will be found valid to get the proposal on the ballot.

“We’re extraordinarily confident this will qualify,” said Michael Selvaggio, UFCW Local 555′s political director. “We’re passing this measure.”

The development is the latest turn in a dramatic series of events that have followed the union’s push to organize cannabis workers.

When a bill to enact a very similar law failed in the 2023 legislative session, UFCW announced it would attempt to recall state Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene. Union leaders accused Holvey, who chaired an influential committee, of tanking the bill’s chance of passing. Holvey, often seen as a staunch supporter of unions, has said he was concerned the idea would violate federal labor law, and that he offered UFCW opportunities to make changes.

The union spent more than $300,000 on a recall campaign that was defeated overwhelmingly by voters in Holvey’s Eugene district last October. Holvey has since announced he will retire when his term expires in early 2025.

In the meantime, UFCW was taking steps to put its idea directly before voters. According to campaign finance records, the union has spent more than $2 million on a statewide signature gathering campaign.

Selvaggio estimated the number at $2.4 million in total, once all expenses are tallied. That’s more than three times what the backers of Initiative Petition 17 — another likely ballot measure that would hike business taxes to send every Oregonian $750 a year — spent collecting signatures for their measure.

UFCW’s measure would require cannabis retailers or processors to sign a “labor peace agreement” with a union in order to get a state license. Under the agreement, management would agree to remain neutral if employees take steps to unionize.

“When Oregon first legalized cannabis, it did not build in worker protections that other states, such as California, New York, and New Jersey did,” UFCW Local 555 spokesman Miles Eshaia said in a release. “Because of vague federal laws, some employers have refused to acknowledge workers’ rights. This measure makes such acknowledgement part of the licensure process.”

The measure is friendlier to labor interests than the bill introduced in last year’s session. That bill would have ensured that unions could not use strikes or work stoppages to settle disputes if they’d signed a peace agreement. The proposed ballot measure contains no such provision.

Selvaggio said Monday that UFCW didn’t know of any organized opposition to the measure, but some powerful interests have raised objections before. Oregon Business & Industry, the state’s largest business coalition, opposed the union’s bill last year, saying it would have required businesses forfeit their federal rights.

The idea “is almost certain to be the subject of litigation in Oregon because it is likely preempted by the National Labor Relations Act,” an OBI lobbyist wrote at the time.

Asked whether business interests would campaign against the idea this year, Erik Lukens, an OBI spokesman, said only that the group is monitoring the measure.

Should opposition emerge, Selvaggio said Monday that his union is ready to fight hard for its idea.

“We have a deep well to pull from,” Selvaggio said. “We’re prepared.”

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for KLCC. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.