A few days before the unofficial marijuana holiday of April 20, as retailers prepared for the biggest sales day since legalization, Austin Monroe says he was fired by Shangri La South dispensary in Columbia.
Monroe is one of 16 employees of the cannabis dispensary who signed an organizing petition seeking union representation by Local 655 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The petition for a representation election was filed April 5 with the National Labor Relations Board, and he says his employment troubles began after bosses found out who had signed.
"I got suspended," he said, and was later fired.
Monroe was among two dozen current and former employees and union organizers who picketed Tuesday outside the marijuana retailer. Organizers said nine of the 16 have either been suspended, fired or have quit because of employer hostility. Six complaints alleging unfair labor practices have been filed with the NLRB.
The picket lines could become more common.
With sales far outstripping expectations, Missouri's booming cannabis industry is seeing incredible job growth since voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing recreational mairjuana in November.
With that job surge has also come a rising interest to protect worker rights, union President David Cook said.
"We have had more interest in workers unionizing for a fair contract, wages, benefits and working conditions than in any industry that I've seen in my career," Cook said. "The interest there is unbelievable."
Monroe said he began working for Shangri La about a year ago, when only medical marijuana sales were legal. He said he had no discipline issues until the union petition was filed.
He suspected trouble when he was asked to come in and talk while he was suspended and refused, saying it could wait for his upcoming shift.
Soon, he received an email that he was fired for accumulating 10 points on a disciplinary scale he says he never saw.
"I loved working with all these folks," Monroe said.
The dispensary on the south side of Columbia is one of three in Missouri by Nevil Patel under the name Shangri La. There is a second Columbia location and one in Jefferson City.
Shangri La "respects" the rights of employees to organize, the company stated in response to questions submitted via email. It denied firing any employee for participating in union activities.
Every business dismisses employees as a disciplinary action and in the highly regulated cannabis business, Shangri La must make sure no polices or laws are violated, the company stated.
"It is worth noting that the state of Missouri requires all legal cannabis dispensaries to hold certain safety and compliance standards and all the disciplinary actions were related to that," the company stated. "In certain cases, we had to respond to multiple team member complaints about hostile work environments created by some of our former employees. No employees have been released from employment due to showing union support."
Every employee is aware of the point system for disciplinary actions, the company stated.
"All the disciplinary actions at Shangri-La, dating back to before these union efforts started, have been based on poor performance and poor attendance," the company stated.
The organizing efforts are well under way in the eastern part of Missouri where Local 655 operates and beginning in the west under Local 2, the union said. Picketing will be used to draw attention to the effort, especially where there is union-busting activity, Cook said.
"We want to let the employer know that the workers aren't going away," Cook said about the Tuesday action. "They have rights under the National Labor Relations Act. ... And if you don't want to sit down and do what is fair, we will continue to have these types of actions."
An active campaign means the employees have signed agreements with the union authorizing Local 655 to represent them. It also means union leaders believe workers have a good shot at succeeding.
"We don't sign a card with somebody unless we believe there's a path for them to unionize," he said. "If it's one disgruntled employee, we're not gonna sign a card because there's no way we can move that to a win for union representation."
Shangri La is attempting to disrupt the organizing campaign through a variety of methods, said Sean Shannon, a field organizer for the union. Along with targeting some of the petitioners, he said the company has begun assigning employees from its other locations to work at the south Columbia dispensary.
Each dispensary is organized as a separate entity under Missouri business law. Prior to the petition, each operated separately as well, Shannon said.
The company, in its response to the Independent, said it employs more than 100 people at its three locations and all are employees of the same company, paid from the same account since before the recognition petition was filed.
Any bargaining unit should cover all three locations, the company stated.
"The NLRB has given us very positive feedback for providing all details, so they can make the proper decision on the bargaining unit," the company said.
The union is prepared to continue fighting but would prefer cooperation, he said.
"The next step is for the company to cease its union-busting tactics and allow for a free and fair election," Shannon said.
If an election is ordered, Shangri La wrote in its response, it will accept the results.
The main push is for better working conditions and recognition of the skills marijuana workers must possess, Cook said.
The most common concern Cook hears is that budtenders are treated like low-skilled workers.
"This is a skilled workforce that is not being treated the way they should be," Cook said. "These individuals have to have knowledge and an education in all the different strains and uses of cannabis in today's world."
So far, the union has not signed a bargaining agreement. But talks are furthest along with employers at Root 66 dispensary in St. Louis, where the employees became the first to unionize by joining UFCW 655.
There, eight workers employed as budtenders joined the union in April 2022 because they were concerned about the lack of a consistent company policy and wanted better wages and benefits, including paid time off for sick leave or vacation, he said.
The union's goal is to set the industry standard for cannabis workers -- just as they do with grocery workers in St. Louis, he said. There, they represent about 40 percent of grocery workers, having bargaining agreements with Schnucks and Diebergs.
"Even though we don't have the other 60 percent," he said, "having that much of the industry kind of sets the standard as to what the compensation package for that industry looks like."
The Missouri Independent, www.missouriindependent.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.