WASHINGTON — Federal officials have found “reasonable cause” that Maine’s largest medical marijuana distributor violated laws protecting workers, in one of the nation’s first labor cases involving the burgeoning legal cannabis industry.
But an attorney for Wellness Connection of Maine, which operates four medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, and a National Labor Relations Board official said the parties are within days of settling the claims to avoid civil proceedings against the company.
Complaints filed on behalf of former employees of the company include claims that Wellness Connection retaliated against employees who raised concerns about pesticide use, interfered with workers’ rights to unionize and solicited workers to oppose the union.
Matt LaMourie, a Portland-based attorney for Wellness Connection of Maine, said, “Based on the discussions that I have had with the NLRB, I am very confident that we are going to be able to reach a settlement agreement with the agency.”
Meanwhile, the national labor union that’s advocating for the Maine workers saw national precedent in the case.
“It is significant that the National Labor Relations Board took a look at this new industry and said, ‘Yes, these workers have the right to work collectively,’ ” said Evan Yeats, spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
The NLRB’s New England office investigated more than 20 complaints filed by the union on behalf of former Wellness Connection employees, even though no medical marijuana dispensaries in Maine have formally joined the union.
The federal officials dismissed most of the complaints, but, according to the union, are allowing several to move forward to settlement or a court hearing.
“Only by sticking together, we were able to find the strength to speak out about the gross violations that we saw at work,” Jenifer Moody, a former Wellness Connection employee, said in a statement released by the union. “By fighting for our union, we are protecting our customers and shaping the medical marijuana industry into a safe and well-regulated industry that provides good jobs and needed medicine for our community.”
Kathleen McCarthy, supervisory attorney with the NLRB’s New England office, declined to provide details on the case Thursday, but said the regional director found “reasonable cause” that violations had occurred. McCarthy indicated that the union’s proclamations were premature.
“We anticipate completion of a settlement and that no (formal) complaint will be issued as a result,” McCarthy said.
The case is the first in which the National Labor Relations Board has recognized that federal labor laws apply to employees in the medical marijuana industry, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than 1.3 million workers nationwide.
The case also illustrates the growing pains of Maine’s medical marijuana industry and the increasing role that unions are playing in the national debate over the legalization of marijuana for both medical and recreational use.
A year ago, workers at a marijuana cultivation site operated by Wellness Connection in Auburn walked out in protest over the use of pesticides. That led employees to lodge complaints over safety and working conditions, and allege that supervisors interfered with workers’ interest in joining the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents medical marijuana workers in six other states.
Wellness Connection operates four of Maine’s eight medical marijuana dispensaries. It has faced a number of regulatory issues. The company has been fined $18,000 by the state Department of Health and Human Services for more than 20 violations, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined Wellness Connection $14,000 for health and safety violations.
LaMourie, the attorney representing Wellness Connection, said the company “was not interested in looking back at allegations and events that transpired a year ago” and would not comment on any complaints from former employees still pending with the NLRB.
LaMourie said the company has “worked productively” with employees – and not with the union – in the past year on issues of wages, hours and working conditions.
The United Food and Commercial Workers is the union that has most aggressively courted cannabis workers. It boasts membership “in the thousands” in the industry in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon and Washington, plus Washington, D.C., and British Columbia.
Yeats, the union spokesman, acknowledged that no Maine dispensary workers have joined, but said Wellness Connection workers are working collectively.
Other unions are increasingly engaging in the politics of pot.
Local United Food and Commercial Workers chapters have helped push to legalize medical marijuana in Maryland, Illinois and Minnesota and to legalize the drug for recreational use in Colorado. The AFL-CIO has also joined political battles over marijuana in Minnesota and other states.
Dan Riffle, federal policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which is working to legalize marijuana for recreational and medicinal use, said his organization has worked closely with the United Food and Commercial Workers union. While his organization does not get involved in the unionization of cannabis industry workers, he said the unions’ interest in the sector makes sense.
“It is a large, growing industry,” Riffle said. “Organized labor has suffered recently (from membership losses), so I understand why they would be interested in this industry.”
Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: