03/28/2012 12:13 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2012

L.A. Marijuana Shop Owners Really Want Their Workers To Join Unions

Brennan Thicke has struggled for years to keep his Los Angeles business open. Several months ago, he called a staff meeting to discuss what he thinks might be his last, best hope: starting an employee union.

"I told them, 'Here's the deal: This is an opportunity for you to save your jobs,'" Thicke recalled.

Employers typically fight worker attempts to unionize. But Thicke's business is not typical. Thicke sells marijuana.

For nearly six years, Thicke has owned and operated a nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary called the Venice Beach Care Center.

The federal government considers pot dispensaries illegal but California law has authorized such businesses in certain areas of the state. Initially, the Obama administration said the federal government would not interfere with medical marijuana users who followed state laws, but last year the federal government began to take a far more aggressive stance, threatening to shut down medical marijuana shops throughout California. The number of dispensaries in Los Angeles is now capped, and its City Council is now considering a full ban.

As owners like Thicke have grown increasingly anxious that their businesses may soon be shut down, they have turned to the United Food and Commercial Workers union as an ally in seeking to protect the jobs they offer and as an advocate at City Hall to fight the ban.

Last week, workers at 14 pot shops, including Thicke's, formed the Medical Cannabis and Hemp Division of Local 770 of the UFCW, a union that also represents grocery clerks, pharmacists and health care workers. Workers at dozens of other pot shops are now in discussions with the union.

Pro-union owners say they hope the UFCW will protest the proposed ban and impose standards on an industry in which many owners still operate without licenses. They also hope it will make their businesses appear more legitimate.

"This is a union town, darling," said marijuana shop owner Yami Bolanos, a two-time cancer survivor who said she had been "living a miserable life" before she started using marijuana. She is also the president of the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance, an industry trade group that is supporting the union effort. "We are good hard-working people, and these are good jobs. We needed some heavy hitters on our side to tell that story."

Thicke employs 14 people, who earn from $10 to $25 an hour. When he first told his employees of the union drive, they were skeptical. "It's money out of their pockets," Thicke said, referring to the union dues that employees will pay. "But it became unanimous fairly quickly that this was the way to go for them," he added.

Adam Daniels, an assistant manager at LA Wonderland who is believed to be the first pot worker in Los Angeles to sign a union contract, said he had a good gut feeling about the union from the start. He then pitched the idea to his coworkers, also known as "bud tenders" -- associates who help clients find the right type of marijuana for their ailments.

"I wrangled everyone together and said, 'This is really important -- it's basically an act of patriotism, coming together like this,'" Daniels recalled.

Daniels has been working in the industry for nearly six years, after his previous work in the motion picture industry dried up. "I was like, what's making money? Marijuana and porn. And I wasn't about to go into porn," he said. Daniels earns from $40,000 and $50,000 a year. He says that he loves his new job and is scared about losing it. Mostly, Daniels hopes the union will protect his job and negotiate health insurance benefits. He, like some other pot shop workers, has no insurance.

"We're working on that," Daniels said. "But the main thing the union will do, I think, is eliminate the shady businesses that are out there. That's the real problem in this industry."

The owner of the last pot shop he worked for, Daniels said, was an "absolute nightmare," who routinely violated labor laws, with actions like not allowing his employees a full lunch break and refusing to pay taxes. Daniels hopes that a growing union presence in the industry will force shops of that type to shut down or change their ways.

Union representatives are focusing on organizing drives at dispensaries where the owners appear to be following legal requirements, such as registering their business with the city and paying taxes. "We want only the best employers because we don't think that many will be left standing at the end of this fight," said Rigoberto Valdez, organizing director of Local 770's cannabis campaign.

The UFCW already has contracts with workers at a handful of other pot shops in Oakland, Calif., and in Colorado and other areas where medical marijuana dispensaries are legal. Valdez said that after the UFCW announced several agreements by workers to set up a union, he was flooded with calls from other employers, eager to introduce him to their workforce and explore the possibility of a union contract.

"We took the committee of the willing first, but now we're bombarded with calls," Valdez said. Although Valdez has been a union organizer for 17 years, he has never experienced an instance of employers initiating an organizing drive.

The union and employers are now involved in contract negotiations at the shops -- often one of the most critical aspects of a union campaign. The the union sees positions at the marijuana dispensaries as similar to those of the pharmacists and other health care workers it represents.

"This is the next step in professionalizing and stabilizing this new sector of the health care industry," Local 770 President Rick Icaza said at a news conference last week. "This is a positive step towards successfully integrating compassionate care into our system of health care."

Councilman Bernard Parks, one of the first of four council members to propose a citywide ban on medical marijuana shops, could not be immediately reached for comment.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that Rigoberto Valdez is organizing director of the cannabis campaign for Local 770 but not for the entire United Food and Commercial Workers union.