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California Puts a Foot On the Scale to Drive Unionization Higher: AB 1291 Mandates State-Sponsored Assistance in Organizing Cannabis Employees

As private sector unionization rates have continued to fall over recent decades, organized labor has increasingly turned to the state and local politicians it supports for assistance in the form of state legislation and local ordinances imposing burdens on employers and aid to unions, while depriving employees of the process and balance intended by the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).  These often come in the form of “Labor Peace” requirements which mandate employers enter into agreements with unions that do not represent their employees as a condition of doing business with government entities or as a condition of entry into government controlled or regulated sectors.  The emerging legalization of marijuana and cannabis in California is one of the latest examples of this trend.

Why AB 1291 Will Make It Easier for Unions to Organize Cannabis Employees and How Cannabis Employers Can Prepare and Protect Themselves

California’s AB 1291, which goes into effect on January 1, 2020, mandates that all cannabis license applicants employing more than 20 employees must enter into a “labor peace agreement,” as defined by Business and Professions Code Section 26001(x), that prohibits a union from engaging in strikes, work stoppages and other economic interferences.  Employers without a qualifying labor peace agreement will not qualify for a cannabis license.  While on its face this ordinance purports to protect the cannabis industry from the disruption of labor disputes, in reality, it effectuates a compelled waiver of fundamental rights guaranteed under the NLRA and makes it much easier for unions to organize cannabis employees.

How AB 1291 Impacts NLRA-Protected Rights and Makes It Easier to Organize Employees

Waiver of Employer’s Property Rights.  Under the NLRA, unions generally enjoy no greater access to an employer’s property than any other member of the public, which allows cannabis employers to exclude union organizers from their property.  AB 1291, however, compels cannabis employers to waive their property rights by mandating that any cannabis employer that is party to a labor peace agreement, which typically will be with a union that is seeking to represent that employer’s workers, provide the union “access at reasonable times to areas in which the applicant’s employees work for the purpose of meeting with employees to discuss their right to representation, employment rights under state law, and terms and conditions of employment.”  This means that union organizers must be permitted to enter the working areas of a cannabis employer’s private property and speak to employees about joining and being represented by the union.

“Neutrality.”  The NLRA, a federal law, protects employers’ free speech rights – their Section 8(c) rights – and allows employers to share their opinions, experiences and facts about unions with employees.  These are essential tools for employers facing union organizing drives as they allow employers to educate employees about the reality of union representation and respond to misinformation disseminated by the union.  More important, hearing both perspectives allows employees to make informed and free choices on whether they or not they want to be represented by a union.  Neutrality provisions in labor peace agreements contractually waive employers’ ability to deploy these dynamic tools and typically require employers to remain impartial on all union matters.  While AB 1291 does not explicitly waive cannabis employers’ free speech rights, neutrality is one of the most common union demands in labor peace agreement negotiations, and employers can expect that unions will insist on neutrality as consideration for entering into a labor peace agreement.  Because a labor peace agreement with a union is required to do business, AB 1291 provides unions the necessary leverage to impose these type of provisions.

Card Check Not Required Notably, AB 1291 stops short of many other state and local “labor peace” mandates by expressly not permitting “card check” provisions which deprive employees of NLRB supervised secret-ballot elections.  Such card checks are typically imposed as a result of other “labor peace” statutes, but are expressly not permitted under the definition of labor peace agreement under Section 26001.  This is likely an attempt to avoid a finding that the statute is preempted by the NLRA as card checks have long been argued to be unlawful – a position the NLRB General Counsel seemingly recently adopted.

Why AB 1291 Is Likely Preempted by Federal Law

AB 1291’s impact on fundamental NLRA-guaranteed rights is precisely why a strong case for preemption exists.  Preemption renders a state or local law unconstitutional when it either (1) regulates activity protected or prohibited by the NLRA (known as Garmon preemption) or (2) regulates conduct that effectively disrupts the balance of power between employers and unions (known as Machinists preemption).  AB 1291 is likely unconstitutional under both preemption doctrines, even without requiring card check.

First, AB 1291 explicitly regulates economic weapons and property rights protected by the NLRA.  Second, AB 1291 implicitly regulates free speech rights guaranteed by Congress to employers in the NLRA, since unions invariably insist on a waiver of employer free speech rights as consideration for entering into a labor peace agreement.    Because the state conditions a cannabis license on a labor peace agreement, a cannabis employer is forced into a position of choosing between either losing their business or giving up its and its employees’ federal rights.  In this regard, the state indirectly regulates employer speech by essentially forcing employers to submit to neutrality in order to receive a cannabis license, and it indirectly regulates employees’ rights to choose by encouraging employers not to share opposing views with employees.

An exception to preemption is recognized where the state is acting as a market participant and its actions further a proprietary interest.  This exception does not apply here, though, because the state is not acting as a market participate seeking to procure goods and services for itself in enacting AB 1291.  Rather, AB 1291 targets private businesses seeking to deliver cannabis products to private citizens through a licensing scheme that regulates conduct exclusively regulated to the purview of the NLRA.  Similar licensing schemes have been declared preempted by the United States Supreme Court and federal district courts.  Building and Const. Trades Council of Metropolitan Dist. v. Associated Builders and Contractors of Massachusetts, 507 U.S. 218, 227 (1993); Aeroground, Inc. v. City and county of San Francisco, 170 F. Supp.2d. 950, 958 (2001).

What Cannabis Employers Can Do In Response to AB 1291

Not surprisingly, although there is a strong case against AB 1291, challenging the new law will likely be economically infeasible for most cannabis employers.  However, there are important steps employers can take both before and after the law takes effect to protect its interests.

Strategic Labor Relations Plan.  The best offense is a good defense, and for cannabis employers, a tactical labor relations strategy is the best defense to AB 1291.  Unions win elections because they promise to change the way employees are treated, not because they promise more money.  Often, a few small changes in an employer’s internal processes can make a dramatic difference in employee morale and contentment, and a strategic labor relations plan ensures employers have optimized their internal processes so that a union cannot promise employees a dramatic improvement in working conditions.

Educate Employees Now.  AB 1291 does not directly impose neutrality upon employers starting January 1, 2020; rather, neutrality will be the likely result of any mandated labor peace agreement ultimately agreed upon.  Accordingly, until cannabis employers finalize a labor peace agreement with a union, they should consider taking advantage of their 8(c) rights and appropriately educate their employees about unions and their impact on employees and the workplace.

Review of Workplace Policies.  Workplace policies are the key to retaining control over the workplace and minimizing disruption once a union organizing drive begins.   Cannabis employers should have their workplace policies reviewed by a labor relations specialist to ensure (1) they are lawfully compliant and (2) they afford the employer maximum control over the workplace and workforce.  It will become more difficult to change workplace policies once a labor peace agreement is in place and a union organizing drive beings, so prudent cannabis employers should aim to have their policy review completed before finalizing a labor peace agreement with a union.

Minimize Concessions in Negotiations for a Labor Peace Agreement.  Cannabis employers should use the labor peace agreement negotiations to minimize concessions to the union and obtain gains of their own.  For example, while AB 1291 requires that unions be granted reasonable access at reasonable times, a cannabis employer can negotiate provisions that specifically delineate when and where union organizers can access its property, which can significantly curtail the disruption such access can cause.  Additionally, employers can negotiate affirmative provisions into their agreement which are designed to actually enhance, advantage or protect their business in exchange for the neutrality or related provisions a union may demand.

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©2020 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. All rights reserved.National Law Review, Volume IX, Number 364
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About this Author

Adam C. Abrahms Labor Management Relations attorney Healthcare law lawyer
Member

ADAM C. ABRAHMS is a Member of the Firm in the Labor and Employment and Health Care and Life Sciences practices, in the firm's Los Angeles office, where he serves as a member of the firm's Labor Management Relations practice group. He has devoted his practice almost exclusively to aiding employers in developing strategies to remain union-free and, in organized operations, to securing and expanding management rights.

Mr. Abrahms:

  • Represents clients before the National Labor Relations Board and other federal and state agencies, and in federal and state...
310-557-9559
Christina C. Rentz, Epstein Becker, Labor Lawyer, Workforce Management practice attorney
Associate

CHRISTINA C. RENTZ is an Associate in the Employment, Labor & Workforce Management practice, in the Los Angeles office of Epstein Becker Green.

Ms. Rentz’s experience includes:

  • Advising employers on labor laws, labor relations issues, collective bargaining agreements, and negotiations with labor unions

  • Defending employers against claims of unfair labor practices, from responding to the initial charge through hearing and appeal

  • ...

310-557-9543
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