National labor board breaks new ground by recognizing complaints against Maine marijuana grower

In this September 2013 file photo, lettering on the door at the Wellness Connection of Maine, a medical marijuana dispensary with four locations in Maine, marks its Portland office.
In this September 2013 file photo, lettering on the door at the Wellness Connection of Maine, a medical marijuana dispensary with four locations in Maine, marks its Portland office. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 27, 2014, at 1:59 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 27, 2014, at 5:37 p.m.
Becky DeKeuster is the executive clinical director at the Wellness Connection of Maine. The organization legally grows marijuana for it's medical pot operation.
Becky DeKeuster is the executive clinical director at the Wellness Connection of Maine. The organization legally grows marijuana for it's medical pot operation. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — The National Labor Relations Board has entered uncharted territory by validating allegations of worker retaliation and union-busting practices by the Wellness Connection of Maine, which grows medical marijuana for distribution in the state.

But while the country’s top food workers’ union hailed the board recognition as a victory in its labor battle with the company, a board official cast doubt on the union’s spin.

And a Wellness Connection attorney said the company has all but settled the year-old dispute and is planning to move beyond the labor clash.

“For all intents and purposes, we’ve agreed with the NLRB on the terms of the settlement,” said attorney Matt LaMourie of the Portland law firm Preti Flaherty, on behalf of the company. “Now they’re doing what they need to be doing internally to finalize that.”

According to a Thursday announcement by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the U.S. government board — which polices labor relations and practices — had never before recognized a dispute involving medical marijuana operations, which are legal under certain states’ laws but still officially prohibited under federal laws.

By agreeing to hear a series of 10 claims by Wellness Connection employees that the grower breached National Labor Relations Act standards, the board not only legitimized the fledgling medical marijuana industry on a federal scale, but it also revived what had become a dormant scandal for one of that industry’s major regional players.

In a Thursday morning news release, the food workers’ union — which has hoped to become the negotiating agent for Maine’s largest group of medical marijuana employees — featured statements characterizing a federal prosecution of Wellness Connection over the worker mistreatment claims as imminent, “absent settlement.”

But Kathleen McCarthy of the NLRB’s Boston office said there are “a number of inaccuracies” in the union release, and LaMourie said a settlement between the company and board is well on its way, making any suggestion of federal prosecution misleading.

The board would enter into administrative litigation against the company only if such a settlement is not reached, a scenario LaMourie suggested would be very unlikely.

“Wellness Connection has been working with the National Labor Relations Board to come to a resolution on the remaining claims, and … we’ve agreed on a framework for a settlement with the NLRB,” LaMourie said. “The company has every confidence it will be able to satisfy its terms of settlement and move forward in a manner that satisfies federal labor laws.”

Later Thursday, a union representative confirmed that details of a settlement had been reached, but that the NLRB had yet to review the terms.

“We are looking forward to achieving justice for the workers whose rights were violated, and seeing improvements at Wellness Connection that will allow the workers to proudly provide their patients with the highest standard of care,” said Moira Bulloch of the union in an email.

Wellness Connection is the state’s largest medical marijuana distributor, operating four of the state’s eight dispensaries — in Thomaston, Brewer, Portland and Hallowell — and has about 3,000 of the state’s 4,500-plus dispensary patients.

Medical marijuana dispensaries were legalized in Maine in 2009, about 10 years after use of the drug for medicinal purposes on an individual scale became legal.

A group of employees said they organized a walk-out from the organization’s Auburn growing facility last February in protest of the use of illegal pesticides, and that Wellness Connection disciplined the workers in retaliation for the whistleblower activity. The employees allege the company also “interrogated” employees and tried to foster opposition to establishing a labor union at the plant.

Disgruntled employees went public with their complaints in an April protest outside Wellness Connection’s Portland dispensary, and the anti-union allegations plagued the company for months before receding into the background. That controversy erupted again on Thursday with the union’s announcement of the NLRB consideration.

“Only by sticking together, we were able to find the strength to speak out about the gross violations that we saw at work,” Jenifer Moody, a former Wellness employee included in the complaint, said in a statement. “By fighting for our union, we are protecting our customers and shaping the medical marijuana industry into a safe and well-regulated industry that provides good jobs and needed medicine for our community. I am proud of what we workers have done and glad to see the NLRB validate our charges against this company.”

Wellness Connection officials have publicly countered that claims of a union movement in the company are overblown, that only a minority wants to organize, and that workers are well compensated, earning 43 percent above minimum wage on average with full health coverage and 401(k) plans with a company match.

The company was investigated last year by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services for its use of what were at the time illegal pesticides, but Wellness Connection leaders argued that although state law technically did not allow use of any topical pesticides, the organic sprays — like sesame and canola oils — were not dangerous or toxic.

Since the investigation, DHHS has confirmed that Wellness Connection has come into full compliance with its rules, and the state Legislature passed a bill allowing “minimum risk” pesticides such as the ones the company was previously scolded for.

Patricia Rosi, chief operations officer for Wellness Connection, has said the company will not stand in the way if a majority of workers want to unionize.

LaMourie said Thursday the company does not “feel compelled to respond to allegations dating from a year ago.”

“We’re not interested in looking backward,” he said. “Wellness Connection of Maine has made great strides in the past year and is looking forward to continued progress in the coming year.”

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