Stephan Donham, a former budtender at Homestate Dispensary, sits on some steps.
Stephan Donham was hired as a budtender at Homestate Dispensary in January. By the summer, he was terminated for, he believes, his efforts to organize workers. (Zach Bauman/ The Beacon)

1. Workers at the Homestate Dispensary have voted to establish the first cannabis union in the area in the Kansas City market. 
2. Homestate employees have complained about not receiving paid holidays and a lack of security in the workplace. They want better pay, job security, better health insurance and protections from wrongful termination. 
3. This unionization of the dispensary follows a national trend of cannabis workers forming collective bargaining units to gain more leverage in their industry. 

Stephan Donham worked as a software engineer for 10 years. It supported his family, but he didn’t have real passion for the work, he said.

But once his kids got older, he shifted to something that made him happy: selling legal weed.

He got hired as a budtender — a retail sales job — at Homestate Dispensary in late January. He enjoyed time with co-workers on the sales floor, but Donham quickly began to notice things like not getting the paid holidays that workers say they expected.

“We got an employee handbook that said we get paid for holidays,” he said. “As long as you work it, you get time and a half. We ended up not getting that.”

So Donham and a few co-workers began to discuss unionizing to get that holiday pay for working July 4. Not long after, he was fired. 

Nearly a year after dispensaries across Missouri started selling recreational cannabis, the people working the service jobs that make that legal weed industry run have begun flirting with unions. Workers at the Homestate Dispensary in the Crossroads voted 6-1 to unionize with Teamsters Local 955 on Oct. 30. 

Organizers say the strength of collective bargaining will give them leverage for more pay, better working conditions and paid holidays in an industry that already hauls in $4 million a day across the state.

The workers talk excitedly about their jobs. They like the idea of combating negative perceptions of cannabis. They like telling customers about the characteristics of different strains of weed. But they hope a union can make the working conditions better.

“It’s more than just a drug,” Donham said. “I love to educate people and show them that’s not the case and to reverse that stigma on cannabis.” 

Why cannabis workers at one dispensary unionized

Once whispers of unionization reached Homestate management, Donham said, bosses intervened quickly. 

“She said I tried to start a mutiny with the employees. Insubordination,” he said. “Which was odd because I did a lot of things for them. I won a sales competition on the floor. It was really out of the blue.”

Management at Homestate did not respond to questions about wrongful termination, but the company that manages the dispensary said employees are within their rights to organize.

“We support our employees’ right to elect whether to be represented by a union or not,” said Josh Corson of A Joint Operation, the management company for Homestate.

Three full-time workers at the Homestate Dispensary said holiday pay is their biggest concern.

“That was already a red flag to me,” said Vincent Steward, a former budtender at Homestate.

Steward was hired in January and started on Martin Luther Jr. King Day.

“By the Fourth of July,” he said, “half a year had already passed and we were still not receiving answers.”

He said he went five holidays without getting extra pay. After multiple complaints to management, he joined his co-workers to discuss other options. And then he was fired around the same time as Donham. 

“I was told, ‘You cannot be in here talking about a union,” Steward said. “It gets the rest of the other employees riled up.’”

Vincent Steward is a former budtender at Homestate Dispensary. Steward is working with Teamsters Local 955 on a wrongful-termination claim with the National Labor Relations Board.  (Zach Bauman/  The Beacon)

Steward and Donham are working with Teamsters Local 955 to file wrongful-termination claims with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB already declared that the two, as well as another worker who got fired, were eligible to vote on whether to form a collective bargaining union represented by the Teamsters.

The Homestate workers also say they’ll be negotiating for more safety. 

“There have been quite a few times on the weekends that drunks come in since we are in the Crossroads area,” said Madison Ford, a budtender who was hired in March. 

She said she struggled to escape the embrace of one person who came into the shop and said another time a customer came with a knife on his hip and had to be escorted out by management.

“We would have to somehow manage this random group of people that’s probably not gonna buy anything with no security, and I’m 5’1,” she said. 

Security was eventually hired to guard the shop entry in September, Ford said. 

“The one security guard is a good start, but I feel like if they’re not gonna be on the sales floor it’s a little bit pointless,” she said. “We need security, especially in the evenings and during weekends. It’s very scary to be swamped and pray to God that it ends.”

The Teamsters say the union plans to file a complaint with the NLRB over wages Ford says she lost after a dispute over how she handled a customer. The union contends Ford was actually punished for organizing workers, and it said the customer will tell the NLRB Ford was not rude.

Workers at Homestate Dispensary, located in the Crossroads, became the first cannabis team to win a union election in the area on Oct. 30. (Zach Bauman/ The Beacon)

More Missouri dispensary unions to come?

Union officials say they think dispensaries are ripe for organized labor because the industry is so young and employees want to help establish working conditions.

“One of the biggest issues in a lot of facilities is this constant changing of company policy,” said Collin Reischman, the communications director of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655, which represents workers in the eastern half of Missouri. “Without a union contract, they can change anything willy-nilly. Policies on tardiness or paid time off. They have no certainty.”

Ford, who was making $15 an hour budtending at Homestate, said workers also want improvements in pay, in health insurance, in protection from wrongful termination and in parental leave, plus a bigger break room. 

It didn’t take long after Missouri’s cannabis legalization for dispensary workers to look toward unionizing. 

Local 955 began talking to Kansas City cannabis workers about four months ago, said Jerry Wood, president of Local 955. 

“That’s both growers and dispensaries,” he said.

Homestate workers are the first in Kansas City to file for an election, but Wood says the Teamsters want to organize other dispensaries in the market. 

Budtenders in other parts of the state have already formed collective bargaining units. In Columbia, employees at Shangri-La Dispensary in south Columbia became the first group to unionize in the state when they voted in favor of unionizing in June with the help of UFCW. Although a contract hasn’t been negotiated yet — Reischman said organizers haven’t been able to get the company to meet them at the bargaining table — budtenders at Shangri-La want higher wages and job security in order to build long-term careers within a new and thriving industry. 

“Lots of cannabis workers are watching this industry form into a multibillion dollar industry on the back of the workers,” said Reischman. “They want their benefits as well.”

He said UFCW represents the majority of union cannabis workers in the country. The union has five active campaigns in Missouri.

“Across the county, cannabis workers are very broadly running straight towards unions,” he said. “It’s a very clear trend.”

Recent Posts

MILI MANSARAY is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.