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The Scandal Rocking California’s Weed Industry

Chris Roberts
Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast /Photos Getty

Sometime in 2018, a Chicago-area union honcho named Joseph Senese started showing up at cannabis industry mixers in California.

Senese represented himself as a leader of the National Production Workers Union, an Illinois-based outfit. As he put it to curious cannabis business owners and consultants, the union was getting into weed with a new California-based local called “ProTech Local 33.” The idea was to help West Coast cannabis businesses fulfill a labor-friendly licensing requirement necessary for them to obtain a state permit and open up shop.

To Johnny Delaplane—an Illinois native and partner in Berner’s on Haight, the first legal weed store in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury—ProTech Local 33 sounded great. Or at least a fine option to satisfy local authorities with what’s called a “labor peace agreement” (LPA), essentially a promise between management and a union to not sabotage organizing efforts.

But when Delaplane and his partners submitted their signed LPA to the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development for final approval, there was a problem: Their new union partner, according to the city’s workforce development director, might not actually be a union. 

Not only had nobody heard of ProTech Local 33—the group is not a member of state or local labor councils or federations—but it didn’t appear to have any members. Even worse, the office found “several articles and court cases” suggesting ProTech was a “company union,” a so-called labor outfit actually controlled by employers. For these reasons, MOEWD Workforce Director Joshua Arce wrote in a December email obtained by The Daily Beast, ProTech had not cleared the threshold of being a “Bona Fide Labor Organization.”

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The episode has touched off a furor in California labor and in the larger cannabis industry—which, with more than 250,000 workers nationwide, most of whom are engaged in low-wage retail or agricultural work, represents a potential bonanza for organizers. So far, however, with the exception of some limited wins by the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Teamsters, organized labor has failed to make many inroads into cannabis, much as it has struggled to make much major headway organizing skilled workers at Silicon Valley powerhouses like Google and Facebook.

The strange saga of a weed labor organizer from the Midwest poking around the local scene doesn’t seem to be making it any easier.

When things went wrong for ProTech in San Francisco, Senese struck back. In a blistering letter obtained by The Daily Beast, he suggested ProTech’s rejection was made at the behest of other existing labor organizations incensed at a newcomer encroaching on their turf. “This smacks of collusion,” he wrote, insisting the Production Workers had been operating in San Francisco and in California “for over 20 years.” 

But while ProTech Local 33’s website lists a phone number and an address at an office park in Bakersfield, a hardscrabble city in that state’s Central Valley, several calls over a period of days to a number listed on the website were not returned. That’s because that office has been closed, Senese explained to The Daily Beast in a telephone interview Thursday from Illinois, where he said he orchestrates West Coast organizing efforts.

Those efforts are on the up-and-up, he insisted.

In addition to the dispensary in San Francisco, ProTech has signed “close to 100” LPAs with other California cannabis businesses and has actually organized workers at five shops, Senese said, including distribution and processing centers. (“Don’t hold me to that number,” he cautioned of the “100” figure.)

The fact that none of ProTech’s members appear in any labor filings reviewed by San Francisco regulators can be explained by the fact that the union was only chartered a year ago, in January 2019, and none of that data has been reported yet, he added.

Asked to name any of the outfits he’d organized, Senese declined. “That’s not something most unions talk about,” he told The Daily Beast. (Most other unions, for what it’s worth, do talk about organizing victories, extremely publicly.)

Nor would he name any other cannabis businesses with whom his shop had signed labor-peace agreements, except to say that ProTech Local 33 was active “from San Diego to Sonoma” County, north of San Francisco. Senese specifically claimed to have signed other LPAs with San Francisco-based cannabis businesses.

The Daily Beast struggled mightily to verify these claims. Labor organizations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the state’s two most prominent cities with thriving cannabis industries, did not appear to be familiar with ProTech. “We have not heard about any union called ProTech,” Christian Castro, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Labor Federation, told The Daily Beast in an email. “They are not affiliated with us or the AFL-CIO.” Rudy Gonzalez, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, likewise said he’d never heard of ProTech Local 33. 

In California’s state Capitol of Sacramento, Jerome Parra, a spokesman for Assemblymember Rob Bonta, who authored the cannabis regulation bill that contains the labor-peace language, said he was also not familiar with the organization.

The union was news to cannabis regulators in other cities, too. Rayna Plummer, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation, said her office had never heard of ProTech—and that it did not have any LPAs on file for any of the city’s hundreds of permitted cannabis operations. (In an email, Alex Traverso, a spokesman for the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, said any information his agency might have about ProTech would be in pending license applications, and thus not subject to open-records laws.)

For his part, Delaplane, who runs the San Francisco Cannabis Retail Alliance, a network of weed sales permit-holders and permit-seekers in that city, said he “did not know” of any other LPAs signed with ProTech among his members.

ProTech also departs from typical union tradition with its membership in a trade group representing business owners. ProTech is the only labor outfit that’s a member of the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA)—Senese even ran for a position on its board, and lost—which recently circulated a white paper instructing owners on how to sign business-friendly labor peace agreements. 

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Josh Drayton, a spokesman for the CCIA, declined to discuss ProTech, including whether the association vetted it before accepting payment for the union’s membership, and similarly declined to discuss the memo aside from denying engaging in any union-busting activities. ProTech had been a member of the National Cannabis Industry Association, spokesman Morgan Fox confirmed, but the organization’s membership lapsed in September. 

Privately, labor officials have suggested National Production Workers, and, by extension, ProTech, is a business-friendly front meant to help companies meet state labor requirements without ever intending to allow workers to organize. Indeed, ProTech appeared to dance very close to the definition of “a company union”—ersatz worker organizations set up by management to crush organizing efforts before they can begin—which have been banned under federal labor law since the 1930s. 

“This ‘union,’ and you can put that in quotes, does not look on the face of it to be a ‘bona fide labor organization,’” said Ken Jacobs, director of the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.

“You’ve got a union that doesn’t appear to have many, or any members, is offering a labor-peace agreement that is extremely favorable to companies, and matches the criteria put forward in an anti-union memo from the industry association,” said Jacobs, who added that ProTech appears to be following a well-established pattern of anti-organizing behavior.

“It looks to me like San Francisco made the right call,” he added.

Senese defended his reputation and National Production Workers. “This union has never ever been found guilty of anything,” he said Thursday. San Francisco “was throwing the whole kitchen sink at us” in an effort to reject the LPA, he added. 

For now, he said, he would let the matter sit. But “if another one of my peace agreements gets rejected,” Senese vowed, “I will take legal action.”


Read more at The Daily Beast.

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