MedReleaf workers fight for right to unionize

The fight to win union rights for Canadian medical cannabis workers has entered a new chapter with hearings underway at Ontario’s Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs Appeal Tribunal for workers at MedReleaf, a licensed producer in Markham with approximately 50 employees.

Employees at the LP have been trying to join UFCW Canada (United Food and Commercial Workers union) for nearly two years. The struggle began in May 2015 when workers at the 55,000 square foot marijuana production facility contacted the trade union to look into joining. After a majority of MedReleaf wstaff chose to sign union cards, UFCW Canada applied for certification at both the provincial and federal labour boards.

But shortly 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 both Health Canada and the RCMP.

Within days of the federal ruling, MedReleaf reportedly began firing the leaders of the union drive. UFCW Canada in turn filed charges of unfair labour practices against the LP 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 cannabis facilities.

“This is about achieving justice for all cannabis workers,” says Philip Manorath, one of the leading pro-union voices at MedReleaf and the first 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.”

Since agriculture workers in Ontario are excluded from the provincial Labour Relations Act, the Board’s ruling effectively stripped 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.

The tribunal has begun twelve days of hearings in Toronto. 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.