California’s medical marijuana industry is in a state of flux, and a Morgan Hill couple hopes to be at the “forefront” of efforts to legitimize the business and offer what they see as some much-needed stability for those who make a living in the field.
Gary and Eydie Salvadore, directors of the SVCare Collective, started doing that by becoming the first medical marijuana collective in San Jose to organize their employees with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 union – joining grocery store, farm, retail and healthcare employees who have been organized for decades.
The dispensary, which has two locations in San Jose, signed its first contract with its 30 or so employees in December, promising them fair wages and working conditions, employment benefits such as health, vision and dental insurance and, eventually even retirement benefits.
“It’s pretty historic, for us and Local 5,” Gary Salvadore, 50, said. “People are going to get trained, and they’re going to be able to get benefits they normally don’t get” when the labor is organized.
His wife Eydie Salvadore, 54, a director of SVCare, added that unionization ensures their employees “more than an hourly wage.”
“It’s something we can offer more to our employee outside what other dispensaries have,” she said. “And we’re trying to be as legitimate and compliant in every aspect of the business as we can.”
Despite the competition, they hope other medical marijuana-related businesses in California and other states with medical laws follow their lead. Doing so can only clarify and solidify policies and regulations that are currently unclear – and possibly result in laws that protect medical marijuana workers equally as employees in any other industry.
And it’s not just an issue of fairness for SVCare’s employees and thousands of others who work in the medical cannabis field. The Salvadore’s wanted to start working with Local 5 because the union, which has more than 33,000 members in California and Arizona, brings valuable political connections to the table and a heightened level of legitimacy to an industry that has met increasing public skepticism in recent months.
“Medical marijuana in California is very sporadic,” Gary Salvadore said. “The federal government still says it’s illegal. The city (of San Jose) was trying to regulate and tax it. The issue is legitimacy.”
He described the contradiction of the city of San Jose’s attempts last year to strictly limit the presence of medical pot in the city, while levying more than 18 percent in state and local taxes on the legitimate operators that remain.
SVCare, which has “quite a few” members from Morgan Hill and Gilroy, joined forces with some other dispensaries and medical marijuana advocates last year to raise more than $200,000 and collect more than 30,000 signatures to defeat the city’s plan to shut down scores of collectives due to the cloudiness of the state law, and the ongoing conflicts with the U.S. attorney general.
Today, medical marijuana dispensaries “are not permitted uses” in San Jose, according to the city’s web site. At the same time, all marijuana-related businesses are required to pay local business taxes even though such payments “in no way legalize activities that are otherwise unlawful.”
“People are trying to shoot you down, and they want your money at the same time,” Gary Salvadore said. “I wanted someone to help me open doors with the mayor, city council, the legislature, all the way up to the president.”
Gary Salvadore increasingly wondered, where does that leave medical marijuana proponents and business owners to seek legitimacy?
The natural answer was Local 5, which already represented employees in a broad segment of non-marijuana industries that are not much different from medical cannabis, which cuts across the same sectors the UFCW has historically represented.
“UFCW is the food, retail, agricultural and pharmaceutical union,” explained UFCW Local 5 cannabis division representative John Hughes. “We feel we are the union for this industry. We bring political clout. The ones we’re in contract with are providing good jobs, healthcare and some form of retirement. We feel we can assist in this effort.”
Hughes added that organizing employees can bring “legitimization and standardization” to the medical marijuana industry.
About 1,000 of Local 5’s members are in the cannabis division, which represents not only dispensaries but growers and other businesses that are peripherally tied to the industry, Hughes said.
About 10 dispensaries are organized with UFCW, Hughes said. Some are already in their second contract cycle. The efforts to organize medical marijuana workers in California started in 2009.
Medical marijuana itself is a multi-billion-dollar industry in California, but Hughes thinks the growth potential for cannabis is “not known.” With more than a dozen other states hashing out their fledgling medical marijuana laws, and a strong potential for the industrialization of non-medical byproducts of hemp – “from food to fuel to fiber” – UFCW’s cannabis division can only grow larger.
But as a sign of the lack of stability for those employed full-time in the state’s medical cannabis field, Hughes pointed to a crackdown by the U.S. attorney general last year that left an estimated 2,000 Californians jobless.
One area where the Salvadore’s and Local 5 don’t see eye-to-eye on some of the exact methods to gain credibility is an effort underway to put a referendum on the November ballot to strengthen and clarify the state’s medical marijuana law. While Gary Salvadore says he supports the concept, he disagrees with some restrictions proposed in the initiative that “would shut down every dispensary in San Jose.”
The Salvadore’s, who have lived in Morgan Hill for about five years, and SVCare are in it for the long haul, and Gary Salvadore realizes that by being in the first handful of dispensaries to organize their employees he “may be putting a target on (his) back.” But he believes in medical marijuana as a health treatment that’s superior to opiate- and other chemical-based medications that are federally approved.
Gary Salvadore has a background in high tech and has “rarely” used cannabis himself. He opened SVCare almost two years ago. The sweeping change in careers was inspired by his experience watching people close to him suffer from debilitating illnesses, and seeing how medical marijuana helped those patients.
The key is to continue to educate authorities and the general public about these beneficial uses of a product that carries a social and political stigma in large parts of the country, and still in some areas of California, he said.
“I could go back to tech tomorrow, and make a lot more money, but medical marijuana has its benefits,” Gary Salvadore said. “And with the union, if we put rules and regulations in place, the industry has to get better. I’m going to be union forever.”
- 10,000-plus: Californians employed by the medical marijuanaindustry
- 1,000: Those employees represented by UFCW Local 5
- 30: SVCare employees represented by UFCW Local 5
- $1B: Estimated minimum value of the state’s medical marijuanaindustry