Brian Shields speaking to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors.
Brian Shields speaking to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors.

Job security seems to be on the minds of many who work in Humboldt’s underground cannabis industry. Big changes have been shaking up business in the Golden State and it hits home particularly hard in Humboldt, where working in the cannabis labor force is a way of life for many. People are afraid that living wage jobs are going to be the first casualty of the revolution.

Farmer-turned-activist Brian Shields believes unionizing workers may be the key to protecting a decades-old way of life in Humboldt and could even improve it.

Shields is the founder of the Humboldt Medical Cannabis Union (HMCU), a group he says is aimed at using the traditional union model to protect living wage jobs in the Emerald Triangle’s cannabis industry. HMCU plans to unify farmers, laborers and processors for the benefit of all. Shields believes that many small farmers want to continue offering a living wage and would benefit from a united workforce.

The main benefit for farmers: access to a consistent, committed and trained labor force to improve efficiency and security. Laborers, processors and providers would benefit from collective bargaining power, job security and a living wage. Shields says the union would also work to get these groups conditions that people in more traditional jobs take for granted, such as access to a safe working environment, regular breaks and bathrooms.

The HMCU isn’t the first to try unionizing cannabis workers. Major players such as the United Food and Commercial Workers union have been involved in organizing cannabis workers for the last six years. The UFCW currently represents around 3,000 cannabis workers across 10 states where medical or recreational cannabis has been made legal.

Shields is interested in working with the UFCW down the line and has even met with the organization’s leadership. He believes, however, that local grassroots organizing is the way to go right now. Michael Kraft, former head of the Northern California Small Business Development Center and an expert on local labor practices, agrees.

“In Humboldt County, we find ourselves working pretty hard to have a voice, and I think local representation working with local employers would be an advantage,” Kraft said.

There are a lot of challenges to organizing the local cannabis industry. People are hesitant still to come forward and be put on any kind of list, and there are still big incentives to remain in the black market. HMCU’s current membership is 12, including Shields with two new applications currently pending.

Shields says the organization does not currently charge dues and has been entirely funded through online crowd sourcing. So far the group has raised $950 according to it’s Gofundme page. New applicants are required to pay a $40 non-refundable application fee that goes to cover a background check.

For now, the HMCU only plans to work with medical cannabis workers. When asked about legalization, Shields says it would be up to the board to decide when that time comes but personally, “I want to fight as hard as I can to keep it medical.” Shields refers to the organization as his life’s work and is one of many people trying to protect the economy and way of life for a large portion of Humboldt County’s residents.

If you are a farmer or worker in Humboldt’s medical cannabis industry, then HMCU wants to hear from you. For more information, to support them or to apply for membership you can visit their website at


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