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On May 2, the staff at the CBN Holdings cannabis grow facility in Gresham walked off the job. They’ve been on strike since.

Their concerns are serious: Workers have said that CBN Holdings, which markets its products under the brand Cannabis Nation, has been consistently dismissive of their concerns about fire and chemical safety at the facility, to the point where multiple workers who handle industrial sanitizers have received chemical burns.

According to Justin Brown, a former assistant grower at the facility, roughly 70 percent of workers signed union cards earlier this year to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 (UFCW). In many private sector workplaces, the path to union recognition would be straightforward: the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) would set an election date, and workers at the facility would vote on whether to form a union.

But CBN Holdings workers are facing a sizable roadblock. Agricultural workers, like domestic workers, are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) that protects the rights of employees at private sector workplaces.

That means that Brown and his former colleagues cannot file for a union election with the NLRB, nor do they have any recourse with the NLRB if they believe that CBN Holdings has retaliated against them for their organizing.

It also means that CBN Holdings cannot be compelled to recognize a union. It would have to do so voluntarily—which makes the ongoing strike and the boycott the growers have called for all the more important.

“There is no agency for agricultural workers,” UFCW Local 555 communications director Miles Eshaia said. “They cannot go to the NLRB in the grow operations. So you’re talking about a new industry—this is not a new problem. No matter who is in charge, Republicans or Democrats, everyone seems to forget about farmworkers.”

The CBN Holdings workers have the right to join a union free from retaliation and collectively bargain under Oregon law, but there’s no one charged with administering the process—making cannabis grow companies essentially unaccountable to the law.

It’s a loophole in the labor organizing process that local farmworker unions like Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) have been dealing with for years, and is a major reason why less than one percent of farmworkers belong to a union.

While Colorado passed a law extending organizing rights to agricultural workers last year, Oregon has not passed equivalent legislation. There has been similarly little movement on the federal level, despite the fact that agricultural workers systematically face low wages, sexual harassment, and job insecurity.

The difference in NLRA coverage has bifurcated organizing conditions for cannabis dispensary workers and cannabis growers. UFCW has already successfully organized dispensary workers, like at Flowr Of Lyfe in Eugene, but found organizing growers more challenging.

“It doesn’t really make sense that you have this big industry in the state of Oregon, and you only have certain people that get the protections,” Eshaia said. “That’s silly. At the very least an oversight, and at the very worst something sinister.”

The lack of NLRB oversight is having an acute effect on organizers like Brown, who started at CBN Holdings last year after moving to Oregon from the Bay Area. For the most part, he said, he enjoyed his job. But he was, like his colleagues, concerned about safety.

“None of us were really told what material we were handling, how to handle it properly, or what PPE to use,” Brown said. “A lot of us have actually received chemical burns on our hands from that, having to find that out the hard way.”

So Brown and his coworkers began organizing. For a time, as he and fellow organizers reached out to UFCW, the effort received little pushback from management. But that changed shortly after workers started signing union cards. Four workers—all union organizers—were fired for relatively small infractions ranging from tardiness to insubordination.

Brown was one of the workers terminated. He wasn’t told that he was fired because of his organizing work, but the timing of his performance review left him with few questions.

“I think it was very suspicious,” he said. “I honestly can’t think of another reason why, especially in this current job market, they would want to let go of more people who it will take them months to replace.”

Cannabis Nation did not respond to a request for comment on this story. In a statement to OPB, CBN Holdings chief operating officer Matt Hurd said that the company was not interfering with union organizing efforts and had not terminated anyone’s employment due to their organizing.

According to Savina Fierro, who co-founded Oregon based Cannabis Workers Coalition with Jessica Ortiz in response to COVID-19 safety issues in the industry in 2020, workers and unions around the state are closely watching what happens at CBN.

“If CBN’s [growers are] able to successfully unionize, it will give a pathway for other ag workers—not even in cannabis, but just ag workers in general—to see that there really is a pathway to organize,” Fierro said.

Brown is well aware of how difficult it has been for agricultural workers to organize—and said it’s one of the reasons why this particular fight at CBN Holdings feels so important.

“There is a second reason why everybody is out there on that picket line through the rain every day,” Brown said. “It’s knowing that we are doing something that, as far as we know, not many or any have tried to do in this state before.”

There are broader implications, too. Since its legalization in Oregon and other states, the cannabis industry has been riddled with the same kinds of racial inequities that agricultural workers already face. For Fierro, that doesn’t square with what the industry should be about.

“I feel cannabis should be held to a higher standard, just because it is a medicine and it is so holistic,” Fierro said. “It’s something that should be [held to] the highest ethical standards.”

CBN Holdings workers have received an outpouring of support from local Teamsters and AFL-CIO unions, as well as from fellow cannabis industry workers—some of whom have joined the picket line in recognition of the groundbreaking nature of this strike.

Customers have also expressed their support. When CBN Holdings workers have held pickets in front of Cannabis Nation retail locations in the Portland metro area, Brown said they have successfully encouraged would-be buyers to patronize other dispensaries for the time being.

“This industry needs to change,” Brown said. “It can be abusive, it can be dangerous, and [other workers] really do kind of see that we are a hope: ‘Somebody’s trying, let’s see how this goes. Maybe we can do this for ourselves.’”