The Swade dispensary, owned by BeLeaf Medical, in St. Louis’ The Grove neighborhood.

A small group of workers at a St. Louis medical marijuana dispensary are seeking union representation in what could be the first election involving legal cannabis in Missouri.

“My understanding is that a total of eight people work at the BeLeaf-owned Swade Dispensary in St. Louis,” Collin Reischman, spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 655, told Grown In, referring to a location in the Grove neighborhood of St. Louis. “Six of them are eligible to be part of the bargaining unit. At least two of them are in management positions.”

UFCW Local 655, which is seeking to represent BeLeaf employees in bargaining negotiations, filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Thursday to conduct a unionization election for six product specialists.

“It’s now up to the NLRB to establish an election date. The practice lately has been about 45 days of the filing. They will set the date,” Reischman explained.

Customer-facing workers by nature, work in settings where they encounter the public, and Reichman says Swade’s workers have particular concerns with protections against the Coronavirus.

“Almost all workers right now are sort of under the gun particularly in any kind of retail work,” Reischman said. “Unlike some folks who are able to work from home, they’re facing the public and have extra concerns about safety and health protocols.”

Workers want to also make sure that as the company grows, that their compensation will increase and with roles and responsibilities within the company, according to Reischman.

BeLeaf operates five Swade dispensaries, three in St. Louis, one in Ellisville and one in St. Peters. 

“We are committed to offering industry leading pay and benefits starting on the first day of employment. While we will not stand in the way of unionization efforts, we feel it’s important to recognize that Swade employees receive an industry leading starting wage + tips, excellent health care benefits with medical, dental and vision coverage at 100% of the premiums paid for employees and 50% for dependents,” a statement from Jack Haddox, director of Swade dispensary operations, read. “We are proud of the environment we are creating and are committed to remaining leaders in the industry,”

In Missouri where medical cannabis is legal, and adult-use cannabis is not, there are many regulatory requirements, Reischman pointed out.

“The workers assume all of that risk when they deal with their patients,” he added. So, they want to make sure they are compensated and fairly treated for that. Having union representation is also about overall stability and consistency of work and that policies are not changed day to day. They can’t be changing their policies so drastically that it’s radically impacting the lives of their workers in ways that are negative.”

UFCW Local 655, which is so far the only union organizing in Missouri, is working with workers at multiple locations, Reischman told Grown In in a previous interview.

Missouri has 181 operating dispensaries and 41 operating cultivation sites. Dispensaries can have an average of 20 workers, while cultivation sites can have anywhere from 20 to 100 workers, depending on the size. By the math, Missouri has around 5,000 workers directly working in plant-touching facilities, a rich, new target for union organizers.

“I’m happy to see that the cannabis workers–which is one of the leading, growing, industries in our country–that the workers in St. Louis reached out to the UFCW,” said UFCW Local 655 President David Cook. “We’re hopeful that we can win an election for the first group, so they have a voice on a job in a new industry.”

Through a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution, medical use was legalized in 2018. The first licensed sales began in October 2020.

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.