Medical Marijuana Workers Fight For Labor Rights At Ontario Agriculture Tribunal

CANADA: The struggle to win union rights for medical cannabis workers in Canada has entered a new chapter, with the commencement of hearings at Ontario’s Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs Appeal Tribunal (AFRAA Tribunal) for workers at MedReleaf in Markham, Ontario. The Markham-based MedReleaf operates an industrial facility with approximately 50 employees who grow, trim, harvest, and package medical grade marijuana.

The MedReleaf workers have been trying to join UFCW Canada (United Food and Commercial Workers union) for nearly two years, and are now fighting for their right to unionize and bargain collectively at the tribunal. The MedReleaf struggle first began in May 2015, when workers at the facility contacted UFCW Canada in order to join the union. With a majority of MedReleaf workers having signed union cards, UFCW Canada applied for certification at both the provincial and federal labour boards.

Not long after the applications were filed, the federal labour board ruled that it did not have jurisdiction over the matter, despite the fact that medical cannabis production is tightly regulated by Health Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

Within days of the federal ruling, MedReleaf started terminating the leaders of the union organizing campaign at its facility. UFCW Canada in turn filed charges of unfair labour practices against the company at the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Before the hearings into the charges began, the provincial labour board deemed the workers to be agriculture workers in December 2015, despite the factory-like dynamic of many medical marijuana facilities.

Since agriculture workers in Ontario are excluded from the provincial Labour Relations Act, the Board’s ruling effectively stripped cannabis workers of the right to unionize and bargain collectively. Soon after the provincial ruling, MedReleaf terminated even more union supporters. To date, 11 union supporters have been terminated by MedReleaf, including all of the leaders who started the organizing campaign.

Having been rejected by both the federal and provincial labour boards, the only avenue left for MedReleaf workers is the AFRAA Tribunal. The tribunal is available to any agricultural worker whose right to freedom of association has been violated. However, this is only the second time in history that the concerns of workers seeking to bargain collectively have been heard by the tribunal.

Now, nearly two years after the union drive at MedReleaf, the tribunal has commenced twelve days of hearings. The first three days of hearings commenced February 7, and the tribunal will reconvene March 1.

Should the tribunal rule in favour of the union, UFCW Canada hopes that the workers will be reinstated with full back-pay, and that the company will be legally obligated to negotiate a collective agreement with the union. It is a long and monumental struggle that will have implications for workers across Canada’s burgeoning cannabis sector.

“This is about achieving justice for all cannabis workers,” says Philip Manorath, one of the leading inside organizers at MedReleaf and the first worker to be terminated following the organizing campaign. “There is no reason why cannabis workers should be denied the right to form a union and bargain collectively, when every other worker in Ontario has the right to do so.”