Montclair budtenders first to join CEED union, focusing on cannabis
KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTLCAIR LOCAL
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Ascend Montclair Dispensary workers have unionized, possibly helping set a standard for the thousands of workers expected to enter New Jersey’s budding cannabis industry.
On Monday, Feb. 7, Cannabis Engineers Extractors and Distributors — or CEED — Local 420 announced the ratification of Ascend's first labor contract for the workers, known as “budtenders.”
Ascend’s Montclair workers are the first to seek CEED as their bargaining unit in New Jersey.
The first dispensary to organize in New Jersey was Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge, Eatontown and Union, under the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 152, which represents 14,000 workers in retail stores, healthcare facilities, manufacturing and the public sector across four states. The workers of Verano NJ, which owns Zen Leaf in Neptune and Lawrence, have also been represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union since January of last year.
CEED was chartered a year and half ago under the International Union of Journeymen of Allied Trades, the oldest union in the United States. CEED was formed to focus solely on representing cannabis workers in New Jersey as the market expands beyond the medical marijuana dispensaries already in New Jersey to include sales to recreational users, IUJAT Political Director Connor Shaw said.
“With the rapidly changing and growing market, CEED can specialize in just cannabis and focus on those employees,” Shaw said.
Before moving to New Jersey, Jeffrey Tabankin, budtender and shop steward at the Ascend Montclair Dispensary, worked for two years in the recreational marijuana industry in Massachusetts. By 2021, the cannabis industry there had grown to 176 retailers, but Tabankin said there wasn’t any talk of unionizing at the businesses where he worked.
When he moved to New Jersey last year to begin working at Ascend and discovered it could unionize under CEED, he began the process. It only took six months to unionize and ratify the contract for the 20 or so employees at Ascend, he said.
“Before we joined CEED, we were only considered at-will employees and had relatively few workplace protections. This labor contract and the union is providing us with critical workplace protections, annual raises, a far better health and benefits plan for the first time,” Tabankin said. “The contract and representation will help us and our families afford the rising costs of doctor visits, hospital care and prescriptions.”
As medical sales expand to include recreational sales in New Jersey (after voters approved recreational cannabis in November 2020, and Gov. Murphy then signed a package of bills regulating cannabis sales and licensing), Tabankin said, unions can help set standards for workers as the “budding industry” develops.
Ascend employees’ new three-year contract includes annual 3% wage increases, a more comprehensive healthcare plan that decreases copays and deductibles, and more paid time off based on a new seniority schedule. It also requires there be just cause to discipline or fire any employee.
Budtenders will now have a say in workplace conditions, with access to a grievance procedure.
If Ascend is awarded any future license for recreational cannabis operations, workers will be able to renegotiate their wages within six months of sales expanding beyond medical, Shaw said.
Tabankin said the move to unionize and the workers’ new contract will forge the way for other cannabis workers, as the market expands.
There are currently 23 operating medical cannabis dispensaries in the state of New Jersey. Another 30 provisional medical marijuana dispensary licenses were approved by the Cannabis Regulatory Commission in December of last year, according to NJ Cannabis Insider.
Shaw said the unionization and the contract ratification “will set a standard not just at Ascend but also for New Jersey’s burgeoning medical cannabis industry. It is crucial that workers in the fast-growing cannabis industry are afforded the protections and benefits of a labor contract and have a say in their workplace conditions."
Ascend, which operates in Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio and New Jersey, took over Greenleaf Compassion Center on Bloomfield Avenue in 2020. Greenleaf Compassion Center opened in Montclair nine years ago as the first medical marijuana dispensary in New Jersey.
Ascend chief revenue officer Chris Melillo has not yet returned a message from Montclair Local requesting comment on Feb 7.
Councilman Bob Russo, who is a union proponent and has served in positions with both The American Federation of Teachers New Jersey and Communications Workers of America, said he commends Ascend for going union.
“Employees will perform much better when having union representation,” he said. “All cannabis industries and businesses should allow and even encourage union organizing and representation of their employees, unlike companies like Amazon, which tries to prevent unionization.”