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Kansas City dispensary workers win union vote as Missouri’s marijuana industry grows

People walking on a sidewalk turn into the open door of a storefront that has reflective windows with white, brick facade. The building has a sign above the door that reads: "Homestate Dispensary."
Carlos Moreno
Homestate Dispensary employees walk into the store Monday morning, Oct. 30, to cast their vote whether to unionize.

Homestate is the second unionized dispensary in Missouri, and the first in Kansas City. Organizers say Missouri is the new frontier in the effort to unionize the billion-dollar industry as it continues to grow.

Workers at Homestate Dispensary in Kansas City's Crossroads voted 6-1 Monday to unionize with Teamsters Local 955. This is only the second unionized dispensary in Missouri and the first in the Kansas City metro area.

The group began organizing in the spring and is fighting for higher wages, more time off, parental leave and better healthcare benefits, full-time security, control over their tips, bigger discounts for budtenders and better staffing rotations.

Madison Ford came to Homestate from a corporate background, where she says she had a good work environment that included competitive pay and healthcare. Working in the cannabis industry is her new dream, but Ford says a lack of worker protections has created a chaotic environment that’s forcing some people out.

She says workers often have their shifts switched with little notice, managers show favoritism and pit workers against each other and fire people without good reason.

Missouri is bordered by states, except Illinois, where marijuana is either completely or partially illegal, and she says the extreme influx of recreational business from Missourians and people coming in from out of state has put a strain on workers. The win makes her hopeful that she and her coworkers can make the industry better for them while it’s still relatively new.

“We were able to come together,” Ford said. “Honestly, this team that I have right now, I wouldn't trade them for the world. We look out for each other and that's rare to find. I hope that anybody else that works at dispensaries knows we're trying to fight for an environment that's going to be okay and that's not going to be whatever this mess that they're doing is.”

The union has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board against Homestate — which also has locations in Creve Coeur and Eureka, Missouri — accusing the company of threatening employees for discussing the union and firing two workers in retaliation for participating in protected union activity.

Josh Corson, a principal at A Joint Operation, the management company for Homestate, said the company supports the employees right to unionize.

“Certain employees who we believe violated our policies are no longer employed and the NLRB is evaluating the Union’s allegations,” Corson said. “We trust the NLRB will find in our favor.”

The company contested three of the ‘yes’ votes Monday, which would have made the results 9-1 in favor of unionizing. Since it would have been a win either way, those three votes weren’t counted.

People walking on a sidewalk turn into the open door of a storefront that has reflective windows with white, brick facade. The building has a sign above the door that reads: "Homestate Dispensary."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Jerry Wood, president of Teamsters Local 955 (standing center) talks with Homestate Dispensary employees prior to them voting Monday morning, Oct. 30, whether to unionize.

Homestate joins a growing number of cannabis worker unions

Missouri’s cannabis industry is growing. Dispensaries across the state have made more than $950 million in sales since recreational weed started in February, with adult-use sales accounting for about $740 million.

Jerry Wood, president of Teamsters Local 955, which now represents the Homestate workers, said the industry growth means workers need union protections as soon as possible.

“I hope (the win) sends a message that they need to take care of the people and pay them a living wage,” Wood said. “Don't know if (the companies are) smart enough to learn that lesson or not, but that's what I hope the message it sends to them. And for the rest of the workers, I hope it shows them that they can do it. They need to form a union to stand up for themselves.”

The union also supports the SAFER Banking Act, which just passed out of Senate committee. The act would give dispensary employers access to traditional financial services. Most legal dispensaries can only operate in cash, which makes them a bigger target for robberies. That’s one of the reasons Ford wants to ensure Homestate has security 24 hours a day.

The Teamsters represent more than 20 dispensaries nationwide and has ratified contracts with about half of them. The union expects that small dispensaries will eventually be bought out by larger cannabis companies. They want to make sure they have a network of unionized cannabis workers before the industry grows even bigger.

At a Teamsters meeting in Washington D.C. last week, the union discussed how to move forward with organizing the industry, including growers, distributors, shippers, warehouse and retail workers.

Part of that strategy includes nationwide support. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters sends organizers to assist local chapters with unionizing the cannabis industry. Staffers are also meeting with locals to help them personalize tactics to organize dispensaries and warehouses in their area and reach out to workers.

The union is using similar tactics it used to organize tens of thousands of retail, food and service workers, sectors newly unionized cannabis workers would fall under.

Matthew McQuaid, a communications project manager with the Teamsters, said Missouri is the most recent target of the union’s organizing campaign since it legalized recreational marijuana earlier this year.

“With every victory we have, that propels our momentum forward,” McQuaid said. “Prior to the pandemic, we had less than a hundred cannabis workers nationwide. Now we have over a thousand. The people in this craft are smart, they're energetic, they're dedicated, they're idealistic. They're not afraid to stand up for themselves.”

A storefront has reflective windows with white, brick facade sits at a sidewalk. The building has a sign above the door that reads: "Homestate Dispensary."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Homestate Dispensary employees voted Monday, Oct. 30, 2023 to unionize — the second dispensary in Missouri to do so.

A new kind of union

Wood says unionizing cannabis workers continues the trend of organizing new industries. In some ways, he believes this organizing effort was easier than some more traditional trade workplaces because dispensary workers “understand what the labor movement is, they understand how that they want to be a union and they feel like they're part of a movement already with the cannabis movement.”

“For years, us old folks wondered how long people would work for minimum wage — two people working full-time jobs and not being able to feed the kids — how long they put up with it before they're willing to stand up and say, ‘Hey, we need to form a union,’” Wood said. “And I think this marks the beginning of them standing up and saying, Hey, we're done. We're not doing this anymore.’”

Ford is excited to get together with her fellow workers to bargain for their first contract. She wants this win to be a wake-up call for cannabis companies to value the people they employ. As they continue to fight for better pay and benefits, Ford is looking forward to helping organize other cannabis workers in the area.

“We love our job or else we wouldn't be doing this,” Ford said. “But at the same time, we shouldn't have to sacrifice anything. This isn't just about getting high, this is about creating a better work environment. Because that's really all that we want. Just a better environment and fair pay, like any other jobs that are out there. This is a billion-dollar industry, there's no reason why they can't.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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