Anissa Keane Collected Union Cards at Curaleaf. Then She Got Fired

Anissa Keane won her job back at Curaleaf after taking the pot giant to court.
Anissa Keane won her job back at Curaleaf after taking the pot giant to court. Anissa Keane
Building a labor movement in Phoenix is no easy task. Over the past year, though, the labor movement in Phoenix has seen some major wins.

Last fall, airport workers at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport went on a 10-day strike, scoring a new contract after years of bargaining. In June, a former budtender at Curaleaf’s dispensary in Gilbert won her job back after arguing in court that the cannabis giant fired her for organizing. And employees at Starbucks locations across the Valley joined unions — becoming some of the first unions at the coffeehouse chain in the country.

To commemorate Labor Day, Phoenix New Times spoke with four union leaders and rank-and-file workers — from teachers to dispensary workers — about the victories and struggles of the past year, and the labor movement in Arizona.

The Labor of Love series:

Monday: Marisol Garcia — 'Every Room I Enter, I’m the Only Woman of Color'

Tuesday: Laila Dalton on Surviving Starbucks' Union-Busting Tactics

Wednesday: Victoria Stahl Joined the Picket Line at Sky Harbor. The Strike Worked.

Today: Anissa Keane began organizing a union at a Curaleaf dispensary in 2020. When the behemoth cannabis company fired her, Keane fought back in court — and won her job back this summer.
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A line snaked out the door at Curaleaf's midtown location on North Central Avenue on the first day of selling marijuana for recreational use in January 2021.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

'Even I was Scared. I Couldn't Afford to Lose My Job'

When Anissa Keane began working as a budtender at the Emerald Dispensary in Gilbert, it was a small, independent shop. Recreational pot wasn’t yet legal in Arizona.

But the cannabis industry in Arizona — now a billion-dollar market — was starting to take off. In 2019, shortly after Keane began at Emerald, the dispensary was acquired by Curaleaf, the biggest cannabis company in the U.S.

Keane welcomed the sale. Curaleaf taking over, she thought, could mean higher wages or better benefits. But little changed. The company, she recalled, was still starting employees at around $12 or $13 per hour.

At that time, there was no union for dispensary workers in Arizona. But Keane believed that the industry would be better for it. “I thought we deserved better. We’d been working hard. Our business had tripled,” she said. She floated the idea of a union in November 2019, but began to organize seriously during the pandemic when coworkers were frustrated by what they saw as lax safety protocols.

She wasn’t anticipating Curaleaf’s reaction.

Keane was in touch with United Food and Commercial Workers, an established union that provided guidance. Her coworkers were young and open-minded. They were receptive to a union, she said.

As Keane collected union cards, management caught wind of the drive. At a mandatory July 2020 meeting, a human resources representative for Curaleaf told employees that if they unionized, they would lose their tips, Keane later testified in court. She implied that Keane was only organizing the union so she could get a job with UFCW.

“After that [meeting], even I was scared, because I couldn’t afford to lose my job at that time,” Keane said. She took a step back from organizing.

Then, in August 2020, Keane miscounted the cash in her drawer by $20. It was a minor error, and her direct supervisor promised she wouldn’t face any serious discipline. But Keane knew what would happen. “They were eventually going to find a reason to fire me,” she said. “I was just kind of biding my time."

The next day, Curaleaf fired Keane. The company maintained in court that the termination had nothing to do with Keane’s union activity. But for Keane, there was no doubt in her mind what had cost her the job. She told the human resources representative who terminated her to “fuck off” and walked out of the building. “I don’t regret it,” she said of this now, but "it was not my proudest moment."

With the help of UFCW, Keane filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over her termination. After two years of court battles, a federal judge ultimately sided with Keane, and, in late June, ordered Curaleaf to give her her job back.

Keane, now 29, has moved on with her life. She has a new job as a housing case manager and is still working on her graduate degree at ASU. She has not returned to work at the dispensary. But it was meaningful, she said, to win the symbolic battle.

Two years after Keane’s initial efforts, the Arizona UFCW’s cannabis arm, Arizona Cannabis Workers Rising, won a union at Curaleaf’s midtown location. Keane was on the “edge of her seat” as she waited for the election results, and was thrilled to see the support for the union drive.

“I had this dream, I guess, that [cannabis] could be this wonderful industry, where employers cared about employees,” Keane said. “To realize that dream a little bit, I think it’s important to unionize. It’s really exciting to watch it happen.”
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk