Budtenders at Zen Leaf in Phoenix Become Fourth Dispensary in Arizona to Unionize

Workers at a second Zen Leaf dispensary in Phoenix have voted to unionize.
Workers at a second Zen Leaf dispensary in Phoenix have voted to unionize. Katya Schwenk
The wave of labor organizing that recently has swept through Arizona's cannabis industry is not yet slowing.

On September 13, budtenders at a Zen Leaf dispensary in Phoenix became the latest workers to join a union, voting overwhelmingly in favor of organizing. Employees at the location — Zen Leaf Local Joint on East University Drive — filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board on July 14, and ballots were tallied last week. Ten of the 17 eligible workers participated in the election. They voted 9-1 to form a union.

Budtenders and other workers at Local Joint will be represented by United Food and Commercial Workers, a labor union with more than a million members across cannabis retailers, grocery stores, offices, and airports. The union celebrated the win, writing on social media that Local Joint employees "will begin to bargain a contract to improve working conditions, raise wages, and secure their futures in the industry."

The dispensary becomes the fourth in Arizona to vote to unionize.

Steve Mazeika, director of communications for Zen Leaf's parent company, Chicago-based Verano Holdings, said in a statement to Phoenix New Times that the company looks forward to continuing to serve its customers. He did not directly address the union vote.

“We are grateful for our Zen Leaf team members, patients, and adult use customers, and look forward to continue serving our wide variety of quality cannabis products across our six Phoenix area Zen Leaf locations," Mazeika said.

UFCW has focused lately on organizing budtenders in Arizona and across the U.S. through its Cannabis Workers Rising project.

In June, employees at Curaleaf's dispensary on Central Avenue in midtown became the first dispensary workers in Arizona to vote to unionize. In July, staffers at a Zen Leaf dispensary in Chandler also voted to form a union.

In August, a second Curaleaf location — the dispensary on Camelback Road and 10th Street — voted to form a union. Curaleaf has contested elections at both the Camelback and Central Avenue locations, and proceedings are still ongoing.

So far, Zen Leaf has not contested the union elections at its two locations. That means the dispensary on East University Drive is the fourth in the state to vote for a union — and just the second location to be certified. Each dispensary negotiates which employees are included in the union, but managers, supervisors, guards, and certain clerical employees are excluded at all four stores.

Verano entered the Arizona cannabis market in March 2021. With nearly 100 dispensaries and operations across 13 states, it is one of the biggest cannabis companies in the country, reporting $738 million in revenue in 2021.

Six dispensaries operated by Verano have unionized in the last year: two in the Valley, three in Chicago, and another in Maryland, according to the NLRB.

Although Zen Leaf did not contest the union elections, organizing drives have not always gone smoothly. Earlier this month, former and current employees at the dispensary brand's Chandler location organized a protest over what they claimed was a series of retaliatory terminations by Zen Leaf. The company fired several union-supporting workers on Labor Day and alleged they had been drinking on the job, workers told Phoenix New Times.

Zen Leaf repeatedly has denied that it has terminated employees for union activity. "We respect our team members' right to choose whether to be represented by a union," Mazeika told New Times after the September 8 protest.

Verano faces eight open cases in which UFCW has alleged unfair labor practices in Phoenix and Chandler, including retaliation against workers, coercion, and terminations for organizing, as well as three ongoing cases involving locations in Chicago, according to the NLRB.
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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