ILWU logoThe Northern California council of the ILWU, otherwise known as the Longshoremen, announced its support for Prop 19, California’s marijuana legalization initiative. The 25,000-member council cited the extraordinary “waste” of money and lives in the war on marijuana, including marijuana prohibition’s disproportionate impact “on the backs of workers, poor people, and people of color.”

The longshore workers have jumped aboard the pro-marijuana legalization bandwagon, as the 25,000-member Northern California District Council of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union say they are pro-Prop 19.

And why would that be?

“The ILWU NCDC supports Prop 19 for good reason,” sez the union’s official statement. “The continued prohibition of marijuana costs society too much. Billions of our tax dollars are wasted annually on the prosecution and incarceration of many, whose only crime is using, growing and selling marijuana.

“Peoples’ lives are ruined for a lifetime because of criminal records incurred from using a drug that is used recreationally by people from all walks of life. Those criminal records fall disproportionately on the backs of workers, poor people, and people of color,” says the ILWU NCDC.

The Northern California Longshore workers – the union of men and women who make every shipping port on the West Coast run smoothly –  join their brothers and sisters in the 200,000 member Western council of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) in endorsing Prop 19. One UFCW local, Local 5 in Oakland, which organized more than 100 employees of main Prop 19 backer Richard Lee’s medical marijuana dispensaries, is going all-in for Prop 19. The feature article on marijuana legalization in next month’s Rolling Stone gives some insight into what UFCW is doing to support the initiative.

The effort marks the first time that labor unions, civil rights groups and drug-policy reformers have worked together, side by side, in the same initiative campaign. Their main message is to emphasize that legalization isn’t about catering to the needs of potheads — it’s about rescuing the state from its $19 billion deficit and putting tens of thousands of unemployed Californians to work. “We don’t see Prop 19 as a marijuana issue,” says Dan Rush, a union organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers who is lining up endorsements for the ballot initiative. “We see it as a jobs creator and tax-revenue generator.”

Armed with union mailers that describe cannabis as “California’s newest union-friendly green industry,” Rush has secured an endorsement from the Western States Council of the UFCW, which boasts 200,000 members. He’s also won support from unions representing longshoremen, communication workers and painters, and he hopes to get the security workers, machinists and public employees onboard soon. But convincing the state’s political establishment to take a public stance on legalization has been a challenge. “When I’m talking one-on-one with union people or Democratic Party people, everybody loves the idea,” says Rush, an old-school organizer who owns three Harleys and sports a dozen tattoos. “But they’re afraid to come out front.” It’s his job, he says, “to make this industry palatable by illuminating its potential.”

This is huge, and very much needed. UFCW’s approach to marijuana legalization is right on. Not only would legalization bring thousands of jobs from the black market to a legitimate job market, but unions can help these be good jobs, with better pay and benefits for employees involved from production to harvest, from distribution to sales. UFCW’s support for Prop 19 is critical to, as organizer Dan Rush says, bring out people whose instinct is to stay in the shadows about legalization.

But the Rolling Stone article also shows some other big news relating to unions and Prop 19: the influential (and well-endowed) California Correctional Peace Officers Association, commonly known as the prison guards union, is staying out of Prop 19.

For now, though, the prison guards are staying out of the fight. The union appears to have less of a stake in the measure than it did in the 2008 campaign, which directly threatened to reduce jobs in the prison industry. “At this time, we haven’t taken a position on Proposition 19, and it’s not certain that we will,” says JeVaughn Baker, a spokesman for the union.

This is huge: in 2008, the prison guards reportedly spent $2 million to help defeat Prop 5, an initiative that would have reformed prison sentencing for nonviolent offenders. The prison guards’ union contribution was 75% of the No on Prop 5 campaign’s total advertising budget, which featured fellow Prop 5 opponent – and current Prop 19 opponent – Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. With the CCPOA on the sidelines, Prop 19 is avoiding a major opponent – and potential funder – for the dirt-poor No on 19 campaign.

All in all, working people are lining up behind Prop 19 to legalize marijuana. This is a very good development.