Missouri cannabis workers fight to unionize
Sean Shannon, lead organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 655 (left), and former budtender-turned-organizer Danny Foster visited several marijuana dispensaries in eastern Missouri in November to talk to employees about unionizing. | Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent

 ST. LOUIS—The first day was a breeze.

While Missouri cannabis dispensary workers see progress, marijuana manufacturing employees say they are stuck in a ‘gray area,’ unable to unionize because they may be considered agricultural workers.

Or so Sean Shannon and Danny Foster found out when they walked into several marijuana dispensaries around Missouri with their matching “Union For Cannabis Workers” shirts and talked to employees about the possibility of unionizing.

“The first day, there were 57 stops amongst the teams,” said Shannon, lead organizer for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655. “Reception was out-of-this-world positive. Workers were so excited.”

Shannon had gathered together a dozen organizers to help Local 655 visit every one of the approximate 100 dispensaries in the eastern half of Missouri—twice.

Stirring up the excitement was the union’s big win of the recent settlement, where 10 Shangri-La South dispensary workers in Columbia received a collective $145,000 after being fired following a March union organizing drive.

“They were excited to hear that Shangri La [employees] actually won,” he said. “They couldn’t believe people were getting their jobs back. They couldn’t believe the amount of money.”

But by the third day, the reception got much colder, he said. Managers had warned their counterparts at other locations that union reps might be visiting.

“Employees were basically told, ‘If you talk to the union, if you take a card, if you take a sticker, you’re out,’” he said.

Still, since the tour, union activity has “blown up,” Shannon said.

An active campaign means the employees have signed agreements, or authorization cards, with the union authorizing Local 655 to represent them. It also means union leaders believe workers have a good shot at succeeding.

Shannon said Local 655 now has authorization to represent more than 20 locations in eastern Missouri.

The next step is filing a representation petition with the National Labor Relations Board, seeking to have the board conduct an election among employees on whether or not to unionize.

Last week, employees at Hi-Pointe Cannabis in St. Louis filed a petition—following the lead of workers at High Profile Dispensary in  Columbia and Bloom Medical Dispensary in St. Louis in early November.

In October, Homestate Dispensary employees in Kansas City voted 6-1 to have Teamsters Local 955 represent them, becoming the second unionized dispensary in Missouri. The first was Root 66 Dispensary in St. Louis, where employees voted to join UFCW Local 655 in April 2022.

A big reason for unionizing

A big reason why employees are moving towards unions, Shannon said, is because Missouri is at the point where the “canna-bliss” of working with marijuana professionally is starting to wear off.

Now the reality that workers aren’t getting paid enough, are sometimes working in poor conditions, and have no job stability is starting to set in, said Danny Foster, a former cannabis worker who was helping with the union’s tour.

“We really weren’t given the industry that we were promised,” Foster said. “We all came in super excited. We love cannabis. We wanted to be able to make it a career. But as it is right now, cannabis isn’t a career.”

The motivation to unionize for Andrew Nussbaum, the most veteran worker at Shangri-La South dispensary in Columbia, was to ensure job security. Because he loves his job as a patient consultant supervisor.

“A lot of us just want to help people and help them find something that works for them,” he said. “I’ve talked to people for 45 minutes to an hour to kind of get them squared away.”

When he and other dispensary workers filed an NLRB representation petition in April, they encountered strong resistance.

After the bosses fired Nussbaum and nine other employees, the board swiftly and firmly sided with them and approved a settlement that awards back pay to all the “unlawfully terminated employees.” It also cleared a path for them to unionize. Announcing the agreement, the board made a pointed statement about the case reflecting the “General Counsel’s vision of fully restorative relief.”

Nussbaum is among five of the 10 terminated employees who will return to work in the near future. And despite it being a tumultuous year, he said he’s committed to his role. He has a degree in plant biology, and he enjoys learning about how cannabis can help people.

“That’s what this is all about,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to all of us because this was not an easy ordeal for any of us.”

One of the things that draws people to the industry is the camaraderie among employees who are passionate about cannabis, Shannon said. And that’s also what makes it the perfect breeding ground for organizing.

“This is a tight-knit community that takes care of each other. They’re already learning that… having a union backing you up, it’s the only way to truly make a difference. I’ve been telling people, ‘Wait till you feel that contract high.’”

But are they ag workers? That’s the big barrier they confront.

A different kind of battle

Will Braddum, a post-harvest technician, faces a different kind of battle at BeLeaf Medical’s Sinse Cannabis site in St. Louis. Not long after he and 17 other employees filed their petition in September, the company argued before the board that the employees aren’t manufacturer workers—they’re agricultural workers.

Agricultural laborers aren’t protected under the National Labor Relations Act, which ensures employees have the “fundamental right to seek better working conditions and designation of representation without fear of retaliation.”

But in a concession to Southern segregationist senators whose votes FDR needed for the legislation, two big groups of workers were excluded, because of race: Farm workers, who were mostly Latino, and domestic workers, who were mostly Black.

It’s a frustrating “gray area” for manufacturing cannabis employees looking to unionize, Shannon said.

On Oct. 27, company representatives described the employees’ job descriptions to the board, which included “a whole bunch of the cultivation side’s job description,” Braddum said. It was eye-opening for the employees who testified and had to refute that description, he said.

“I’ve never watered anything and never touched any soil,” he said. “I’ve never touched a living plant at work. So I guess if they’re gonna tell the National Labor Relations Board that we’re doing agricultural work, maybe they’re not necessarily on our side at all.”

An attorney for BeLeaf Medical said the company was not able to comment.

It’s unclear how long a decision from the board will take, but the decision will likely be reviewed closely nationwide.

Braddum has been at BeLeaf for the last year and a half, but he’s been part of the legacy market since 2009.

“I just kind of segued,” he said. “I went from an illegal career to a legal career without a hiccup basically.”

For him, this is his career. He’s seen how “cutthroat” the corporate side can be and how a human relations officer has the power to make someone lose their agent ID, or state-issued license to work in cannabis. He doesn’t want that to happen to him or any of his team.

“The only way to pad myself from Human Resources is to cultivate a union movement,” he said, “and talk to my co-workers about job security.

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri’s cannabis industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.