Dealin’: Organized Labor Wants Its Piece of the Cannabis Industry

Cannabis was good to Debby Goldsberry. The time she spent in the late 1980s and early ’90s following the Grateful Dead on tour, passing out photocopied fliers that agitated for marijuana legalization, led to a high-paying career. After California legalized medical cannabis in 1996, Goldsberry cofounded one of the state’s first major marijuana businesses, Berkeley Patients Group.

One of the most successful dispensaries in Northern California, BPG grossed more than $15 million in sales in 2009. That year, Goldsberry earned $263,299 — less than her fellow cofounders and co-executives (both men), but still good money, considering her job’s illegal origins 20 years earlier on Shakedown Street.

Sometimes the light’s all shining on me.

Things fell apart in 2010. With recreational marijuana legalization on the state ballot, Goldsberry and her partners disagreed about BPG’s future. That summer, she was removed from the company’s board of directors after a no-confidence vote.

One day in the fall, she showed up to work and found someone else occupying her desk. She took time off after a doctor advised her that work-related stress was getting to be too much. When she returned on Dec. 31 of that year, her partners handed her piece of paper: an at-will termination form.

Other times I can barely see.

Once the shock cleared, Goldsberry learned something about California employment law. “I was an at-will employee, even though I was a founder,” she says. That meant she could be fired at any time without explanation, and without severance pay.

Goldsberry had immense respect within the legalization movement — High Times later declared her marijuana “activist of the year” and flew her to Amsterdam — but respect doesn’t pay the mortgage or the grocery bill.

Sometimes your cards ain’t worth a dime.

Bereft, Goldsberry turned to a new friend who’d appeared on the marijuana scene earlier that year: a union organizer with United Food and Commercial Workers, which had just become the first labor union to organize workers in the American medical cannabis business. UFCW found her an employment attorney, who sued for wrongful termination (the suit was settled out of court in 2012 for an undisclosed sum). The union also found her a new job.

After working on a union effort in San Jose, Goldsberry landed a dispensary gig — with a union contract — at Magnolia Wellness, near the Port of Oakland. Much smaller than BPG, Magnolia is nonetheless described by UFCW’s Local 5 as its “flagship” shop. (Its location — along one of the main routes for container traffic in and out of the port, where a labor dispute earlier this year ground container traffic to a halt, slowed the economy, and led to layoffs across the West — is a meaningful coincidence.)

Like most activists-turned-entrepreneurs who founded the state’s first wave of medical marijuana enterprises, Goldsberry had come from a cash-only, hustle-and-share economy. For a Deadhead hippie, a rigorously enforced union workplace existed in a different world.

“I never worked in a place with organized labor,” says Goldsberry, who is now a staunch advocate for unions. “I found out the hard way: had I been a contract employee, none of this would have ever happened.”

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