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A certification battle between licensed cannabis producer Tilray Inc. and a prominent national union could become a pivotal moment for organized labour in Canada’s fledgling cannabis industry.

"The first domino that falls usually leads to many others,” said Pablo Godoy, western regional director for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada. “We have had many inquiries that are really wanting to see what happens with [the Tilray vote] and we find that we often build momentum off of one win.”

Last month, workers at a Tilray facility in Nanaimo, B.C., voted on whether or not to become Canada’s first unionized marijuana grow op by joining UFCW Canada. More than a month after that Oct. 16 poll, however, the results remain unknown.

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The outcome could have a huge impact, not only for Tilray, but for the entire industry. Should it lead to a broader unionization movement, labour costs would almost certainly rise at a time when the industry has been reeling from poor financial results, supply challenges and continued competition from the illicit market.

Before the ballots can be counted at Tilray, the B.C. Labour Relations Board must decide whether 62 of those votes are valid. The union, along with two current production workers at the facility who spoke to The Globe and Mail, allege the company intentionally encouraged dozens of unrelated employees to vote – from call centre workers based in another location to senior managers and scientists – in a deliberate attempt to minimize the odds of a pro-union result.

Labour Relations Board spokesperson Guy Pocklington said there was “no timeline for a decision on voter eligibility."

Shane Dawson, however, is willing to wait. The organizing director for UFCW Local 247, who helped marshal the workers at Tilray, accused the company of union busting and said its actions were “the worst in the 30 years I’ve been doing this.”

“I’ve seen some [employers] do some strange stuff, but this was pretty blatant in its efforts to slow this [unionization] process down in hopes of killing it. They are doing their best [and] it seems they are not going to roll over.”

The company does not deny encouraging more workers to vote than the union was expecting. It says, for example, the call centre workers will eventually move to the same facility.

“The union has decided it only wants to represent certain select groups of employees at our Nanaimo facility, whereas Tilray believes all of its Nanaimo facility employees should have the right to decide if they want to be represented,” Tilray spokesperson Chrissy Roebuck said via e-mail.

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The two Tilray employees, to whom The Globe has granted anonymity because they feared reprisals, described a high-pressure working environment with extremely low job security.

Ms. Roebuck said there was “no truth to the allegations of a lack of job security” and the company "has absolutely not engaged in any delaying tactics in connection with the union application for certification,” she said.

The UFCW says it gets calls from cannabis workers across Canada on a weekly basis, up from virtually zero at the start of this year. Queries are coming in from workplaces involved in every step of the legal supply chain, from production facilities to dispensaries.

“[Cannabis] workers, in my experience, will put up with things like it being too hot or this or that, because they are trying to make a career in this up-and-coming industry, but what they cannot tolerate is disrespect,” said Deborah De Angelis, UFCW Canada’s national strategic campaigns co-ordinator. “Where workers really will say stop is at sexual harassment, disrespect and management bullying and that is where we are getting calls, because it really takes a lot for them to pick up the phone and call a union, that takes a lot of strength to do in an industry like this."

Unionization “has significant costs and challenges associated with it and [the cannabis] industry is already faced with cost challenges on a daily basis,” said Alison McMahon, founder and CEO of recruitment and HR consulting firm Cannabis at Work. “We continue to see pressure from unions in this space [and that] would be the last thing [cannabis companies] need.”

The UFCW is hoping that a positive vote at Tilray sparks a rapid wave of organizing efforts across the cannabis sector. It’s been attempting to organize Canadian cannabis workers since 2015, when roughly 50 people employed by Markham, Ont.-based licensed producer MedReleaf Corp. voted to join UFCW Canada. The Ontario Labour Relations Board subsequently ruled those workers to be agricultural, which in Ontario prevents them from being represented by a union. Despite MedReleaf being sold to Aurora Cannabis Inc. in 2018 for $3.2-billion, UFCW Canada continues to advance an appeal of that decision.

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“Employers will never admit this, but they will do very much whatever they can to stop a union,” said Christo Aivalis, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto studying the history of labour relations. “The reality is, [cannabis] employers will try to fight unions [and] as the industry grows and scales, then there will probably be a bigger and bigger division of interests between those who own the industry and those who are employed by the industry.”

As that gap has grown, so has the expectation for unionization efforts to expand in the legal cannabis sector. Beyond a desire for better pay and improved working conditions, Mr. Aivalis said the trend is also driven by cannabis production evolving from small-scale grey market operations with no more than a handful of workers each to massive facilities with hundreds or even thousands of employees.

That is why the UFCW’s Mr. Dawson says a union victory at Tilray in Nanaimo will mark the beginning, not the end, of his cannabis work.

“My goal is to go there and unionize that Tilray plant. That might take one vote. It might take two. It might take three, but then I want to take that contract up the road 100 miles to another plant and go to the front gate and show the workers what they can get,” Mr. Dawson said. “Then I’ll want to go to another cannabis plant, then another. That is the domino effect we are trying to get going.”

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