'Labor peace' rule for pot industry ignites feud

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A new debate over collective bargaining focuses on Michigan's burgeoning marijuana industry, where the GOP-controlled Senate is at odds with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration.

The Senate approved a resolution on Wednesday that formally opposes an administrative rule proposal that would require marijuana businesses applying for state licenses to sign a so-called "labor peace agreement" with a union.

Under the draft rules, the agreement would have to prohibit a union from "engaging in picketing, work stoppages, boycotts and any other economic interference."

An employee prepares smell samples of marijuana flowers for recreational sale for customers to check on the fragrance of products at Exclusive Provisioning Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Dec. 1, 2019.  
(Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Senate Regulatory Reform Committee Chairman Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, described the rule proposal as a "run-around the Legislature" to implement a "giveaway" for "union bosses" who would be able to organize employees working in the marijuana business.

The debate comes more than a year after Michigan voters decided to legalize the adult-use of recreational marijuana in November 2018.

"It’s a total shakedown of a new industry," Nesbitt alleged of the rule proposal.

But supporters argue the proposed rule is meant to ensure the new regulated market isn't disrupted by union demonstrations, and they say Republicans are trying to "score political points."

Unlike other industries, a disruption to the regulated marijuana market could affect public health and safety by driving customers to the illicit market, argued Andrew Brisbo, director of Michigan's Marijuana Regulatory Agency.

"The illicit market stands ready, willing and able to fulfill the need should there be any labor disruptions," said Brisbo, who appeared at a Senate subcommittee hearing in December.

The arguments come as Detroit Police Chief James Craig said a black market in marijuana is already flourishing and spurring more crime and violence in the city because illicit pot is cheaper than licensed recreational marijuana.  

The GOP-controlled Senate approved a resolution against the "labor peace agreement" requirement in a Wednesday party line vote of 21-15. One Republican and one Democrat were absent. The resolution won't block the rule proposal, but the Legislature's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules could later try to stop it.

The Senate vote was a "clear indication" that the committee would try to reject the rule, Nesbitt said.

"This is a line in the sand," Nesbitt told reporters, adding, "You shouldn’t have to get a signoff … from a union boss before you can get a license."

Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton

Former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Republican who is now president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, supported the Senate resolution during a committee hearing this week. He argued that every licensed business should be concerned about whether the Whitmer administration can force a "labor peace agreement" requirement through a rule.

"The state itself is getting in the way of the will of the people, which was to allow this industry to move forward," Calley said.

But former House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, a Democrat who now represents the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, rejected Republicans' arguments in front of the same committee.

The rules would require a "labor peace agreement" with the terms of the pact being left to the parties to negotiate, Greimel said. There are multiple unions that would be in competition, he added, and the business would have to sign an agreement with just one.

"There is not one single cookie-cutter format for a labor peace agreement,” Greimel said.

Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor,and a member of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, voted against the resolution.

"I think they are trying to score some political points with this," Irwin said of his Republican colleagues. "And that’s the main reason they’re doing what they’re doing.”

In 2012, the GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican then-Gov. Rick Snyder made Michigan a "right to work" state, approving a law that barred labor contracts from requiring non-union workers to pay fees for contract bargaining.