New Brunswick

'Last minute' confusion over Cannabis NB union

People who applied to work at Cannabis NB expecting the same job security, schedule stability, seniority rights and other union benefits as NB Liquor employees might be in for a surprise.

Retail cannabis workers 'actually not unionized,' says CUPE 963 president

Less than two weeks before stores are scheduled to open, CUPE 963 president Jamie Agnew says he learned Wednesday the local will not automatically represent Cannabis NB's 180 retail employees. (Ed Hunter / CBC)

From checking ID to dealing with intoxicated customers, Cannabis NB workers are going to have a lot in common with liquor store workers when stores open Oct. 17.

But people who applied to work at Cannabis NB expecting the same job security, schedule stability, seniority rights and other union benefits as NB Liquor employees might be in for a surprise. 

CUPE 963 president Jamie Agnew said he learned Wednesday that "right now, the current [Cannabis NB] workers are actually not unionized … they do not automatically get the benefits of CUPE 963's contract."

Cannabis NB has hired 350 employees, including managers, team leads and executives.

It isn't clear what union benefits, if any, the 180 or so retail employees could receive.

Contradictory statements

CUPE 963 represents all non-management ANBL workers, including part-time and casual employees.

On March 26, 2018, the local announced "after lobbying, submissions and consultations," CUPE 963, the union representing New Brunswick Liquor workers would be representing workers at Cannabis NB, a subsidiary of the New Brunswick Liquor Corp., the Crown corporation also known as ANBL.

The interior of a Cannabis NB retail location in Saint John, where as many as 10 employees will work at a time in the first phase of legal cannabis, according to ANBL and Cannabis NB spokesperson Mark Barbour. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"I've been led to believe that it was going to be one thing and then we find out it's another," Agnew said.  

As a subsidiary of New Brunswick Liquor, Cannabis NB is considered a separate employer under Section 4.1(2) of the New Brunswick Liquor Corporation Act.

 Twenty Cannabis NB stores are scheduled to open across the province in less than two weeks.

"They left it to the last minute," he said.

People who applied at Cannabis NB expecting the same job security and other union benefits as NB Liquor employees might be in for a surprise. 0:52

No agreement reached

But according to ANBL and Cannabis NB spokesperson Mark Barbour, the Crown corporation never reached any such agreement with CUPE 963.

"We are aware of the statement that was made by CUPE in March," said Barbour.

"As an employer we are obligated to abide by the Public Service Labour Relations Act. Cannabis NB is committed to respecting the Act and the rights of employees. We support the employees' right to choose. We do not feel it is the employer's role to decide."

A Cannabis NB reception area, where customers can check out the menu on a table, before a retail employee helps them with a selection. Approximately 180 of the 350 employees Cannabis NB has hired in recent weeks are retail workers. (Julia Wright /CBC )

Agnew said given CUPE 963 workers are "the only ones right now selling controlled substances, we thought [Cannabis NB workers] would just move right into us, and follow right along with our contract. A lot of their classifications mirror and mimic our classifications: providing customer service, social responsibility … stuff like that."

As things stand, the onus will be on the 180 to 190 full-time, part-time and casual retail employees of Cannabis NB to choose which union they want to represent them.

It could be CUPE 963, another CUPE local, or another union altogether.

"[ANBL] is not going to hinder or stop us from organizing, but there's not a lot of help coming from them," Agnew said.

I've been led to believe that it was going to be one thing and then we find out it's another. - CUPE  963 president Jamie Agnew

If more than 60 percent of the workers sign union cards, the union could be certified automatically by the New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board.

If a lower percentage of workers sign cards — between 40 per cent and 50 per cent — the board holds a vote to see if workers want a union.

If the union is certified, the employer and union representations will then negotiate a collective agreement setting out wages, benefits, working conditions and job security.

Agnew says he was led to believe the union representing liquor store workers would also automatically represent Cannabis NB employees. (Ben Silcox/CBC)

Union drive underway

In New Brunswick, the average salary for a liquor store retail associate ranges from $16.50 to $24 per hour.

According to Agnew, casual Cannabis NB employees will start at around $19 an hour, while the rate for full-time and part-time employees ranges from $22 to $23 an hour. Unlike casual NB Liquor employees, he said, casual employees would not have benefits.

Barbour declined to confirm the salaries and benefits available to Cannabis NB employees, saying it could harm ongoing negotiations.

Agnew said CUPE 963 has "already received emails and calls" from workers interested in organizing, and union representatives are working to get a union drive underway.

About the Author

Julia Wright

Information Morning Saint John host

Julia Wright is a lifelong Saint Johner and the host of Information Morning Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.