Matilda reclines on a Northeast Los Angeles couch she’s paid $25 to sleep on for one night. The young woman, who earlier in the day had returned to the U.S. from Mexico, talks about her job as a cannabis trimmer. Matilda (not her real name) gives a heads-up on her epilepsy, and through the night she’ll make a number of unusual sounds in her sleep.
Matilda has worked most in Mendocino on good and bad trimming jobs. At most black-market marijuana grow operations, she’s found there are guns. She grew used to the constant, noisy whirr of the high-powered generator that powered the lights growing the plants. The bad gigs are the grows where weapons are numerous and the bosses are antic.
She left one trimming gig where the volume of open gunplay made her uncomfortable and moved to another one in the Emerald Triangle–– Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties in Northern California–– that featured consistent pay. The farm’s generator that kept the lights going operated at lower decibels, and the guns were out of sight. Sweet gig. Except for the bathroom, which sat a good 30 yards from the house. Every midnight tinkle run was an adventure.
“You shouldn’t have to worry about bears on the way to the bathroom,” Matilda said.
“My Top Boss Was A Retired Russian Clown”
About five years ago I trimmed briefly for room and board in Oakland and Marin County. My top boss was a retired Russian clown who tooled about the Bay Area with a briefcase full of many thousands of dollars and, of course, a heater. In a short time it became clear that without weed trimmers, though narrowly skilled, the industry could not function. Yet these thousands of workers are all but invisible and work at the mercy of their employers. Unlike growers, whose value derives from the nuanced skills, necessary to grow pot on a large scale, trimmers are often regarded as disposable. The profile of this work will only become more visible as adult-use marijuana goes mainstream.
Trimmers are often called “trimmigrants” due to the nomadic nature of their seasonal outdoor labor. Word of workers like Matilda coming together to improve their working conditions now unevenly circulated. The movement seems as undeniable as it is necessary.
California labor law requires that any cannabis licensees with 20 or more employees will not be able to operate in the state without a labor peace agreement between the business and a union representing cannabis workers. The agreements seek basic workplace protections: freedom from sexual or other harassment, regular pay schedule, incremental wages, just cause termination, and consistent, scheduled breaks. Down the road, peace agreements hope to give the folks who trim California’s cannabis health insurance and other benefits, as has happened with the unionized licensees since 2010. Peace agreements now want to make sure protections in place become industry-wide standards, and that all jobs (including trimming) allow a living wage and mobility.
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 770 consultant Robert Chlala said that by organizing trimmers, “my hope–and what we are seeing in our work already–is that we can avoid trimmers being treated as contingent workers or falsely labeled as independent contractors, that they can get the same protections as other workers.”
Along with the Teamsters, the UFCW has greeted California’s adult use cannabis legalization era with a spate of organizing among trimmers. “From what I have also seen, it’s rarely just one-off,” Chlala said. “Trimmigrants do this work, but many also work in other aspects of the industry, from cultivators to retailers.”
Great Trimmers Are A Business Asset
Trimmers are taken less seriously than growers and testers and even bud tenders and deliverers because, on the surface, their labor is viewed as an easily scalable craft that can be completed while thoroughly baked.
Before pot ends up in the hands of a distributor and, in the legal marketplace, a lab tester, it is cultivated. After cannabis “colas”–– the flowering site of a female cannabis plant––are grown, dried, and cured, it’s the trimmers’ responsibility to manicure the plant. Leaves, which contain less tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, are cut away, leaving only the cola’s bud. Bad trimming can be aesthetically unpleasant and a waste of time and product. Great trimmers are a business asset.
Their pay can range from $100 to $300 a day. Some in the off-the-books grows, as mentioned earlier, trim as barter. Work days can run as long as 15 hours. The work is inherently repetitive and often done while high and listening to music and, increasingly, podcasts.
Work conditions are as varied as the strains of cannabis cultivated in the state. The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal reported in 2016 that sexual assaults on female trimmers are frequent and woefully undercounted. Because of the vagabond nature of these workers–many are college students on break and travelers from Europe–there’s little recourse for being asked to work topless or give fellatio to receive earnings.
However, there’s no single way to summarize the trimmer experience, according to Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association. “A licensed grow and a trespass grow on wilderness land are two different experiences and the needs are very different,” said Allen. “California’s a very, very diverse marketplace, with a lot of different practices, from best to worst. And it’s very important to avoid generalizations.”
Criminal grows are most likely where openly stored guns are found, Allen told me. Small farms that employ family and friends are more the norm, and firearms are not foregrounded. These farms, particularly in the Emerald Triangle, are grappling with the California industry’s volatile changes–new regulations and massive companies–and the demands of finding a path to legal status. Allen compares the concerns of these workers to Detroit just before President Obama’s auto company bailout. Simply maintaining jobs is the primary on-site issue.
As Cannabis Farms Get Bigger, Will Safety + Wage Issues Grow?
Big marijuana businesses such as the Oakland-headquartered behemoth Harborside Farms and the average pot cultivator are incorporating these changes differently. Harborside Farms came to Salinas, bringing 360,000-square foot grow with it. The average grow is 5,000 square feet. Flower greenhouses have been largely replaced by cannabis farms. Land costs have skyrocketed as other cannabis operations have streamed into Monterey County. The Harborside Farms effect has raised concerns that worker treatment will more resemble big agriculture than the county’s previous mom-and-pop pot growing.
“That workforce is a lot more interchangeable with the traditional ag workforce,” Allen said, noting that he’s unfamiliar with the specifics of Harborside’s business practices. “You run into a lot of traditional issues. You run into the same safety and wage issues that you do with criminal grows, oddly enough.
“Big industrial ag is pretty well known for human rights abuses, the same sort of human rights abuses that cannabis workers are used to seeing on those criminal grows.”
At the opposite end of the skeletally policed Emerald Triangle, in a small Los Angeles warehouse, two trimmers luxuriate in just how satisfying the craft can be. While classic rock plays from an old-school radio, Francisco, 44, lovingly prepares a nugget to go out into the world. The cola has just come from the curing room. He and his partner that day were waiting for their boss at the door, eager to work.
“Every time I trim one I’m like… ahh,” he says, clipping at a bud while explaining. “You just make it look the way you like it. Trim it until the little red hairs are showing, until you can see all of the really good crystals. I really enjoy looking at it.”
The two sampled the cannabis and explained to their bosses how the product was working. Two thumbs up. A much more satisfying job than Francisco’s previous work as a landscaper. The closest thing there is to a labor of love that he would do for free.
Yet, the trimmer’s work needs protection and recognition, noted Chlala, who’s also president of Latinos for Cannabis. Southern California, with its vertically integrated cannabis companies–grows owned by the same people who sell and move green product–is likely to lead the way in trimmer organizing around the state. Santa Barbara has seen an influx of big pot businesses and is likely to be a big target for unions.
The organized shops could not come soon enough for a workforce too often on the lookout for bears and regarded as an industry stereotype.
“While trimmers are often treated like they do one discrete task,” Chlala said, “their work is key to the production chain for cannabis–no different from any agricultural process like harvesting tomatoes or processing cut flowers or almonds.”
Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues.
This is part three of a series of stories by Donnell Alexander, a Los Angeles-based journalist and the author of Ghetto Celebrity (Crown, 2003) and the animated documentary Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No.