Courtesy of UFCW Local 655
From left, Joanna Njama and Em Holmead stand outside Root 66 on South Grand Boulevard after employees voted to form a union.
Em Holmead enjoyed working in the medical cannabis industry. Holmead, who has chronic pain and anxiety herself, enjoyed helping patients find the same comfort at Root 66 Dispensary off South Grand Boulevard.
Holmead was disappointed to leave the company after working there for several month. She felt that employees deserved more than they were getting for their long hours, low salaries, and lack of benefits. Holmead, who uses the they/them pronouns in her speech, started a campaign to unionize Root 66 in January.
After all eight workers voted for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655, the effort was successful. But Holmead and Joanna Njama, a coworker, lost their jobs in March. They also lost their jobs during the unionization process. Both claim they were fired for being union leaders.
Holmead, Njama claim Root 66 management claimed that they viewed security camera footage in violation of company policy. Holmead & Njama both assert that they had access to the footage as well as other employees.
“They kept saying that we were spying on them,” Holmead recalls a time Njama and Holmead saw footage while a company boss was holding meetings with employees. She adds that Root 66’s cameras do not record audio. “I was the lead of the campaign, I organized all of it, but they found a way to get me out of there.”
Federal law gives all employees the right of union organization. No one can be fired or disciplined for participating in union activity.
The union and Root 66 met this week. The company’s employees have many concerns. However, UFCW 655 president David Cook said that three main issues are securing better wages, better job security, and better benefits, especially health benefits.
For Holmead, the final straw was when, after a water main break down the road, the city turned off the dispensary’s water, yet the dispensary’s employees were told to keep working. They continued to work for five hours, without running water or a flushable bathroom.
In an emailed statement to the RFT, Root 66 director of retail, Rachel Shenk, said Root 66 offers “industry leading pay, as well as a safe, upbeat and compliant work environment for our team members.”
“We have tremendous respect for our cannabis advisors’ right to choose the path they deem best for their careers,” Shenk continued, “and will always proudly support each and every one of our valued team members in their pursuits to reach the pinnacle of their noble and rewarding profession within our expanding organization.”
Root 66 is owned by St. Peters-based G.F. Wellness and was the first dispensary to open in St. Louis City, in 2020.
Root 66 has also locations in St. Peters, and Downtown. A proposed fourth location in Des Peres may be in the works, but it doesn’t look very promising as neighbors object to its proximity to a tutoring center.
The firing of Holmead and Njama, shortly before Root 66 employees were scheduled to vote on the unionization proposal, only galvanized Root 66 workers’ determination to unionize, says Collin Reischman, a spokesperson for UFCW Local 655.
“Frankly, all that did was prove how much they need a union,” Reischman notes.
The disputed video camera incident took place in early March, when, according to Holmead, they and Njama watched the store’s live camera footage while the company’s president had one-on-one conversations with employees during lunch hours. Holmead claims they were checking that the store had enough staff and looking at the camera footage to see when the conversations ended.
Njama claimed watching camera footage was part of their jobs: “We’re supposed to look when customers come in and check out the sales floor and watch our coworkers’ backs.”
Holmead says the company called their actions “a security risk.” An investigation followed after company leaders said someone reported Holmead and Njama for watching camera footage, according to Holmead. They were interrogated for half an hour before being released. Holmead reached out to the union shortly thereafter.
Root 66 Dispensary now faces an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board. A lawyer filed the charge on behalf of UFCW Local 655 on March 7 in protest of Njama and Holmead’s terminations.
Janine Martin, the lawyer on Holmead and Njama’s case, says the standard remedy for cases such as these, if NLRB finds sufficient evidence to support the charge, is a “make whole” remedy, where terminated employees are reinstated with back pay and lost benefits.
The NLRB’s regional office would also then issue a complaint if it finds the charge has merit.
If the complaint is not settled, it will be brought to the attention of an administrative judge who will decide if there was a violation of National Labor Relations Act and, if so, what remedies to order.
Njana claims she was fired because of a policy that was “created out of thin air.” Reischman believes the union has a strong case.
Root 66 Dispensary employees have not been the only ones involved in unionization efforts. Reischman said that UFCW Local 655, which is a union, is actively engaged with four medical cannabis companies located in the St. Louis region. He did not provide names.
Workers at Swade Cannabis in the Grove filed a petition for a union election in January, though the petition was withdrawn soon thereafter.
Bernadette Fau, a former Swade employee, claims that employees chose to work with management to resolve their issues. Faure claims she gave two weeks notice after which she was fired for reasons unrelated to union activity.
Jack Haddox is the director of retail operations at Swade. He claims that no changes have been made to wages or benefits in the company since employees attempted unionization.
“The only area we’ve changed is how often and effectively we keep lines of communication open for all employees,” Haddox wrote in an email to RFT. This includes weekly “town halls,” where Haddox discusses ideas and policy changes with employees. Haddox also stated that the company launched a platform for employees to anonymously comment.
Njama, who was fired from Root 66 Dispensary in 2016, started Missouri Cannabis Workers for Higher Standards on social media. Njama posts encouraging messages to cannabis workers who are also struggling with low wages or other issues on Facebook and Instagram.
“Cannabis workers deserve so much better,” Njama says. “I think it’s early enough in the industry where we can secure something that’s better for us.”
Holmead no longer works in the medicinal cannabis industry but is proud of her former coworkers’ success at unionizing.
“I didn’t want to go anywhere at the time, but in a way I am happy it happened the way it did because of the outcome we received,” Holmead states. “I’d do it all again – I’d get fired over and over again if this was the outcome.”