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'We can change our workplaces for the better': Phoenix-area cannabis workers call for unionization

Activists argue recreational marijuana has uprooted industry and labor is feeling the burn

Jose R. GonzalezArizona Republic

Angel Guerrero thinks the absence of unionization in the recreational pot industry has wilted the customer experience and that the lack of fair employment practices has burned through worker morale, she argued Thursday morning, on 4/20, following a rally in central Phoenix supporting unions.

She and others present at the event held at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 99, near Central and Ashland avenues, including local state and municipal representatives, argued dispensary employees are facing wage disparities, gratuity theft, wrongful termination and a dearth of proper health care benefits.

The 40-year-old Chandler resident works as a brand ambassador promoting products at cannabis dispensaries in the area. Guerrero credits marijuana with pulling her from the brink while undergoing harsh breast cancer treatment that led to severe depression.

"Cannabis saved my life," Guerrero said following the rally and press conference. Medications "drained every bit of life out of me," but now because of cannabis "I have it back," she said.

With her cancer now in remission, Guerrero thinks others in similar situations are not receiving proper care and attention from vendors.

Before Arizona legalized recreational marijuana in January 2021, Guerrero felt comfort in knowing budtenders would cater to her medicinal needs. The new corporate culture, she said, has squashed that customer-vendor relationship.

"Ever since recreational took over, you can just tell that the budtenders will look around and they’re like, 'Oh, we just have this,'" Guerrero said. "Just the quality of when we go into the dispensaries has plummeted."

Guerrero argued a union contract would ground dispensaries to focus on customer needs versus corporate profits.

The state’s lucrative cannabis industry should "come back to being humble human beings and help each other," Guerrero said. A contract "would keep the managers in line."

Shift from 'patient care to profit margins'

At the press briefing following the rally, several others in the cannabis business spoke about the need to secure a strong union contract to improve workplace protections.

Phoenix-area budtender Nick Fredrickson said he found a job with purpose when he entered Arizona’s medical cannabis industry following U.S. Army service overseas.

"Unfortunately, things changed after recreational use was legalized. Overnight, it felt like the whole industry’s focus shifted from patient care to profit margins," Fredrickson said.

Wages stayed the same despite the workload increasing, Fredrickson added. He mentioned work safety concerns, pointing to vandalism on dispensaries and a lack of security protocol in such situations.

"As union members, we can change our workplaces for the better, but only if we stand in solidarity and demand … cannabis companies meet us at the negotiating table," Fredrickson said.

A face mask-wearing budtender from the Valley spoke under the pseudonym "Milo" out of fear of retaliation. Milo, who identifies as transgender and disabled, called for union contracts to squash workplace harassment and remedy employee grievances.

"The grief in all of our lives has smoldered over this past year. We have all been burned by this fire that corporate cannabis has stoked," Milo said. "Racism, transphobia, misogyny, homophobia and ableism run rampant now in every corner of this industry."



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