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Cannabis workers unionizing amid concerns at RI cultivation center

Cannabis workers unionizing amid concerns at RI cultivation center

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GTI Growing Room

Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries has a cultivation center in Rock Island.

ROCK ISLAND – Workers at Green Thumb Industries have formed a union in response to what they call unfair labor practices, including unlawful intimidation, harassment and retaliation at the company's Rock Island facility.

Now several aldermen are asking the city to reconsider its support for companies that receive city tax breaks while violating the law.

GTI employees stormed Monday night’s Rock Island City Council meeting to detail their issues at GTI's cultivation center in the city, as they say the company has not recognized their union. 

Kyle Meyer, who said he's worked two years at GTI, told the council there has been mandatory overtime and unfair labor practices at the job site.

“For months, my coworkers and I listened to complaining from managers, supervisors and coworkers about losing benefits, having promised raises unfulfilled and a general lack of organization, and that’s when we decided to form a union,” he said.

“We ran a clean campaign and we did everything that we were supposed to. We had majority status and we asked for recognition from GTI on Oct. 10, but GTI refused to even get back to us, despite having multiple notices sent to them.”

The union spat comes at a crucial time for the local cannabis industry. On Jan. 1, Illinois will legalize sales of recreational marijuana. Many are unsure if the state's relatively few licensed suppliers will be able to meet the expected flood of demand.

A voicemail message left for a manager at GTI's Rock Island facility was not returned Tuesday. GTI is a Chicago-based cannabis company that opened in Rock Island in 2015.

Since Oct. 10, the Teamsters union has filed four complaints with the National Labor Relations Board against GTI. The complaints, obtained by the Times through a Freedom of Information Act request, allege that employees were illicitly polled and questioned coercively about their union organizing. 

One complaint alleges that GTI failed to "properly investigate and take preventative measures against workplace harassment and physical threats," and that the company arbitrarily disciplined an employee in retaliation for union activities.

Some in the crowd Monday night wore shirts of Teamsters Cannabis Workers. In contention was Rock Island's support for GTI.

In December, the City Council unanimously approved a $775,000 incentive package to encourage the Chicago-based company to expand in Rock Island. In August, that package was enlarged by $60,000.

GTI's expansion will double the size of its facility at 8221 51st St. W. to 66,000 square feet. Plans also include hiring around 100 workers. Documents state that the company currently has more than 50 workers.

“I know Rock Island does tax incentives for GTI, and they are deliberately breaking labor laws and violating the rights of their workers," said Meyer, the local employee. "We're here to ask for support and ask what the city of Rock Island is going to do for its workers that are having our rights violated."

Another worker spoke about weeks of harassment at GTI that ultimately led to a panic attack and an ambulance ride from GTI to the hospital.

Ald. Dylan Parker, Ward 5, wrote a recent letter to GTI supporting employees' right to form a union. In a show of support Monday night, he wore a Teamsters pin on his suit.

"It does infuriate me that a company that we gave tax breaks to is now violating the law,” Parker said. “If you violate the law, you violate the law, whether it’s criminal or labor. So would this city give tax breaks to a common criminal? I don’t think so.”

If companies that receive city tax breaks are found to violate fair labor practices, Parker said the city should look to hold them accountable.

“If you’re going to be harassing employees, if you’re going to be violating labor laws, you’re not getting tax money from Rock Island citizens, so I would request your support on this,” he said to his fellow council members Monday night.

Ald. Dave Geenen, Ward 7, said he supported Parker's position.

Mayor Mike Thoms said Tuesday morning that "it's not the city's role to intervene in a private business like that."

"Council didn't hear the other side's point of view, so it's hard to make a determination on who is right or wrong," he added. "It's a private industry; it's their business. Not the city's. The business has lived up to its promise on the incentives by adding jobs and adding capital to their building and that's what the city asked for."

The fledgling GTI union received support from James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters, who spoke in solidarity with Rock Island GTI workers in a YouTube video published Oct. 2.

“As cannabis workers in Rock Island, you deserve the benefits of a strong, union contract. You’re paving the way to raise the standards for everybody in this new and emerging industry,” he said.

“As president of the 1.4 million members of the Teamsters Union, I guarantee that we will be backing you all the way. You’ll have the resources of our union at your back. We’re with you and we want to make sure you’re Teamsters at GTI.”


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