Curaleaf & Zen Leaf Resist Workers' Rights & Unionization

Curaleaf & Zen Leaf Resist Workers' Rights & Unionization

In the state of Arizona the hard workers of the cannabis industry are making great efforts to unionize to improve wages, benefits, and workers' rights. The Budtenders at the Curaleaf Dispensary in midtown Phoenix recently passed the vote to unionize, and workers at several other dispensaries are following suit (they will be taking the vote in the next few weeks).

This is a big deal for the cannabis industry. At Ethereal Gold Dispensary, we believe in workers' rights and the success of our entire team. We also believe that in this industry the employees should see profits -- not just the bigwigs at top. (This is, of course, in addition to the social responsibility we have to communities that still continue to be effected by the BS "War on Drugs".) Unionization can be an incredible tool for worker protection.

Unions Fight for Profits to Reach Workers

“As cannabis companies like Curaleaf continue to see record profits, the time to share their prosperity with workers is long overdue.” said United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 99 President Jim McLaughlin in a July 2 press release. (UFCW 99 is Arizona’s largest private-sector union, representing 24,000 workers at Fry’s, Safeway and other retailers throughout the southwest. There are more than 1.3 million UFCW members nationwide.)

For those unfamiliar with Curaleaf, they're based in Massachusetts and are one of the world's largest cannabis companies by revenue. They're owned by Verano Holdings, and they operate more than 100 dispensaries in 22 states across the U.S, which includes eight in Arizona. (Nothing says supporting the local community like a giant mega-corp coming in...obviously.) Curaleaf has (allegedly) worked to block unionization in its dispensaries, and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has received numerous complaints about the company from cannabis outlets throughout the country. When it comes to Verano Holdings, not only do they own Curaleaf AND Zen Leaf.

When asked, Curaleaf said it could not comment on the unionization efforts. Per this article's source, Verano Holdings did not return a request for comment before this story was published. Several days later, a company spokesman sent a statement saying that it has not retaliated against employees seeking to organize, and that the company “champions inclusion and equality,” and that it respects workers “right to choose whether they want to be represented by a union.”

Not only are there ongoing legal actions delaying the unionization, but an employee at the Chandler Zen Leaf dispensary (known as Territory before Verano Holdings purchased it), filed a complaint in January alleging “coercive statements (threats, promises of benefits, etc),” as well as retaliation against employees attempting to unionize.

UFCW spokesperson Drake Ridge said that much of the desire for change among dispensary employees is because the cannabis corporations come into the state by purchasing locally-owned operations. They then immediately create a corporate structure that isn't responsive to employee concerns.

“When Zen Leaf Chandler was still [named] Territory, a lot of the workers were employed there when it was still a mom and pop, and they remember what it was like to have that close relationship with management,” he said. “All across the board, the issues that [workers have] seen are pretty much the same: These large corporations come in, they’ll implement new policies without much discussion, and workers are seeing an instant decrease in their bottom line.”

How Much do These Corporations Pay Their Budtenders?

According to to, the average Budtender wage in the United States is $15.09 (pay varies $12 an hour to $16 an hour).When Zen Leaf and Curaleaf came in, they made huge changes for workers, including with what happens to tips from customers. Instead of allowing Budtenders to continue to keep all of their tips, the new corporate owners implemented policies requiring all tips be pooled and split among all employees—including management. In our opinion at Ethereal Gold Dispensary this is unacceptable for multiple reasons.

  • Foremost, ownership should not receive compensation from tips
  • Secondly, staff should not be relying on customer tips for their wage. (According to Ridge, this change in policy cut some employee's take home pay by 40%)
    • Our money is where our mouth is on this. All of our employees at Ethereal Gold Dispensary make AT LEAST $16 an hour, not including additional benefits such as health insurance, an incredibly above average vacation policy, hybrid & flex hours, maternity/paternity pay, potential equity positions, and more. We also encourage open discussions between employees about their wages and compensation.
  • Thirdly, according to Drake Ridge, many of these options bring in $1 million to $2 million in revenue each month. Let us estimate their net profit (money made after expenses) at 15% to 20%. That's $150,000 to $200,000 a month of profit, even after paying their employees. Who does that profit go to? Company ownership.

According to Ridge, the abrupt change in gratuity policy has been a serious point of contention for the unionizing Budtenders, who rely on tips to make ends meet. Steve Mazeika, a spokesman for Zen Leaf parent company Verano Holdings, disputed the union’s assertion that managers in Arizona dispensaries receive a portion of customer tips. However, Gino (a Zen Leaf Budtender who led efforts to unionize the shop) was fired along with six other employees after Verano changed its tip policy and unionizing efforts began.

“If your company is making $1.2 million to almost $2 million in good months, every month, then employees shouldn’t be making $15 an hour,” Ridge stated. “If you’re making hand-over-fist amounts of money, you can afford to pay your employees fairly. We’re just simply asking to be paid fairly.” We couldn't say it better. These profits should be shared fairly among employees AND the communities that have been targeted by the "War on Drugs" to get here.

One former Curaleaf employee says she was fired in 2020 for trying to unionize her workplace. Curaleaf fired Anissa Keane, who had worked in its Gilbert location for three years—including prior to Curaleaf purchasing the dispensary—in August 2020. In 2021, Keane, with the support of the UFCW, filed a lawsuit alleging her firing was retaliation for her organizing activities. Curaleaf says it fired her because she was a subpar employee.

Keane has recently been reinstated to her job and will start soon, after an injunction against Curaleaf was lifted, but the status of a potential vote is still unclear. (The UFCW is currently working to get back pay for Keane.)

The most recent attempt by Curaleaf to stop unionization was to file an objection to the NLRB, taking issue with the use of mail-in ballots for the unionization vote. The company claims there was insufficient notice of the switch to mail-in voting.

At Ethereal Gold Dispensary our goals are to support our community, our team, and our customers -- whether this means to unionize, create an ESOP (employee stock owner position), or any other structure. We look forward continuing to grow with you all.