MARIN COUNTY — In a suburban oasis amid golden hills north of San Francisco, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union are processing thousands of marijuana cigarettes a day, rolling joints in rice paper cylinders from Amsterdam.
The startup factory for a Bay Area firm called Medi-Cone is part of a commercial industry evolving to serve the hundreds of thousands of medical pot users who can legally use the drug in California, as well as marijuana dispensaries amassing an estimated $1.3 billion in annual transactions.
As Californians prepare to vote on a November ballot initiative that would expand legalization to recreational pot use, labor groups see the potential for perhaps tens of thousands of unionized jobs.
United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 5, which has 32,000 members in California working in trades including the grocery and food processing industries, began organizing marijuana "bud tenders," greenhouse workers, packagers and laboratory technicians last spring.
"The cannabis industry is a retail agriculture food processing industry and we are a retail agriculture and food processing union," said Dan Rush, the union's director of special operations. "If we were not on top of this industry and its emergence, we would be asleep at the wheel."
He said the union is negotiating contracts for pot workers ranging from cultivators to scientists that would provide pay scales of $25 to $50 an hour, as well as health care.
Recently, the Teamsters signed a contract to represent indoor cannabis growers for Marjyn Investments LLC, an Oakland management firm that oversees cultivation and hiring for medical pot dispensaries.
The powerful Service Employees International Union doesn't intend to represent pot workers. But the 700,000-member union, made up largely of public employees, has endorsed the marijuana initiative, Proposition 19, because of its potential to generate tax revenue.
SEIU California communications director Mary Gutierrez said taxes from a commercial marijuana industry could save "a lot of crucial" programs in a state with a massive budget deficit.
"I think this could potentially be an industry that produces a lot of good jobs" for other unions, Gutierrez said.
In Marin County, Matt Witemyre, a member of UFCW Local 5, earns $25 an hour as chief of staff for Medi-Cone. On a recent weekday, he hovered in a Medi-Cone work room, filling dozens of marijuana cigarettes and encasing six-packs of designer pot Grand Daddy Purple and Sour Diesel into retail packaging for dispensaries.
"We're hoping to see dozens, if not hundreds of employees producing these joints and a full, integrated line, from hash to edibles, all high-quality, top-shelf bud," Witemyre said.
Union penetration in the pot industry is still limited, encompassing a few hundred people out of a potential labor force of tens of thousands.
The United Food and Commercial Workers represents 170 employees working in California pot industries.
Teamsters official Lou Marchetti negotiated a marijuana contract for Teamsters Local 70 in Oakland, garnering union wages and a pension plan for pot gardeners, trimmers and plant cloners. Though the Teamsters have fewer than 40 weed workers, Marchetti said, "we're just getting to the tip of the iceberg."
Proposition 19 proponent Jeff Jones, who founded the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, one of California's earliest medical marijuana outlets, said the medicinal industry employs up to 10,000 people statewide. Jones, who helped create the initiative, said legalizing recreational pot use could create "40,000 to 60,000 sustainable jobs."
For now, Oakland is the hub of the push to transform California's marijuana market into a major commercial enterprise.
The Oakland City Council recently voted to offer local licenses for four marijuana growing and production factories. The city intends to levy a 5 percent tax on industrial cultivation of medical marijuana and raise it to 10 percent if pot products are produced for recreational use.
Not only do the unions want in on the Oakland industry, but marijuana entrepreneurs see political legitimacy in signing labor accords.
Jeff Wilcox, a former construction industry executive seeking one of the Oakland cultivation licenses, is promising 400 union jobs in a "business park for the cannabis industry" that would include commercial grow rooms, bakeries and laboratories.
In construction, Wilcox ran a non-union shop. He says he "fought the carpenters (union) for years," but now views unions as a means to win political support. "Unions are the first line of defense for any employees and politicians listen to the unions," he said.
The industrial weed rush offends Los Angeles City Council member Dennis Zine, who is irked that Oakland is commercializing cultivation and unions want in.
Los Angeles moved to shutter hundreds of pot shops under a strict local ordinance passed this year. But Zine, a former police union president, says the city is seeing unsanctioned marijuana-growing warehouses "that remind me of the bootlegging industry."
"There's no question unions are trying to grab new members. But I don't support it," he said. "If the people are foolish enough to support this , we'll be competing with the drug cartels."
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