The Next Generation – Eugene Weekly

Photo Courtesy of Twitter @SpacebudsUnion

Workers at the Eugene sci-fi themed cannabis dispensary SpaceBuds have a goal: to boldly go where few dispensaries have gone before — by forming a union.

After voting 5-4 on April 4 to join the established United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 union, workers at SpaceBuds: The Dispensary now await the bargaining process with owners. A worker who’s a part of the unionizing efforts, Dakota Licea, says employees want to secure a living wage, a set schedule and other benefits he says the workplace is lacking — and to set an example for other dispensaries in town.

SpaceBuds is locally owned by Brian Albert and Michael Antonucci. Eugene Weekly reached out for comment, but did not receive a response.

Budtenders throughout the cannabis industry, Licea says, are treated as retail workers, but there’s a lot of skill that is involved when selling weed and hemp products. It’s a job that often requires enough knowledge of various types of cannabis to provide accurate information for customers, whether they need the product for medical or recreational use. And most dispensaries require two to three years of cannabis industry work experience, specifically in budtending.

“I do actual clinical research for cannabis and find neurochemical peer-reviewed studies,” Licea says. “SpaceBuds prides itself in having educated budtenders, but we aren’t treated well. But that’s another thing that’s rife in the industry.”

Licea says at his first job budtending years ago he started at about $12 an hour, and at SpaceBuds he’s making $15 an hour. “The problem that we’re seeing is that after five years of experience, that’s the max you can hit,” he says. Budtending wages have dropped over time, he adds, since the start of recreational cannabis in Oregon. “We’re seeing this industry at the best it’s ever been at, so why aren’t we seeing workers treated well?”

At SpaceBuds, Licea says workers don’t know their two-week schedules until the night before they start, and shifts sometimes change in the midst of the schedule. And workers don’t know whether they’re working on a holiday. “If your schedules are constantly changing, you can’t have a life. You’re a worker at the whim of your own business,” Licea says.

And, Licea says, until recently SpaceBuds didn’t have a sick leave program in place, prompting two complaints filed to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.

On Aug. 18, 2020, to avoid possible employer retaliation, an employee’s roommate filed a complaint on SpaceBuds’ lack of sick leave policy, according to documents obtained by EW through a public records request. BOLI sent SpaceBuds a compliance agreement, a document where the employer agrees to follow state labor law in the future.

According to a December 2020 email from SpaceBuds’ bookkeeper to BOLI, the dispensary had 17 employees at the time. Oregon law states that employers must offer one hour of protected sick time for every 30 hours worked, up to 40 hours per year, and the employer must inform the worker of how much time they have. Businesses with more than 10 employees must pay workers their regular wages when they take sick leave.

On Dec. 11, 2021, Licea filed a complaint with BOLI alleging that SpaceBuds was not following state law on sick time. His complaint alleged that SpaceBuds didn’t show the amount of sick time employees had, and that the owner had refused to pay workers their wages while using sick leave.

On Jan. 4, a wave of workers at various Starbucks locations in the US began the unionizing process. Within weeks of this, employees at SpaceBuds filed a petition for a representation election. To begin the unionizing process, 70 percent of workers must sign the petition. On April 6, SpaceBuds workers voted whether to unionize, which included the store’s full-time and part-time budtenders, receptionists, delivery drivers and intake managers, according to the NLRB. The vote passed, 5-4.

Unionizing with UFCW 555, Licea says, rather than going alone in the process, has provided the workers with a litigation team and expertise in dealing with the NLRB. Joining the nationwide union means paying monthly dues of about $15, he says. It’s the cost of Netflix, he adds, to have the backing of an organization that could help workers receive pay comparable to other dispensaries in town, ranging in about a few dollars more per hour, as well as other work benefits. And he says through the UFCW, workers have filed workplace complaints to the NLRB.

Since workers won their union vote, Licea says some legal protections have been implemented, including paid breaks. “We’re starting to have our voice and feel heard and feel secure in our job,” he says. And although Oregon is an at-will state, meaning workers can be fired on the spot, most SpaceBuds workers feel a sense of protection from the union.

Workers at SpaceBuds are not the only ones at an Oregon dispensary seeking unionization. On Jan.13, workers at Eugene’s Flower of Lyfe won its union election, but the NLRB closed the application months later, citing issues with its initial petition. And on May 2 workers at the Gresham dispensary CBN Holdings walked out to protest the employer’s not recognizing the union.

Although workers voted to unionize, the next steps include contract bargaining with the owners of SpaceBuds, but the owners have not met with the bargaining team, Licea says.

UFCW 555 spokesperson Miles Eshaia says the union is hoping to have SpaceBuds negotiations begin in the next few weeks. The contract bargaining process shouldn’t take years to accomplish, as the union can exercise pressure points to move bargaining along, he says.

He adds that cannabis unionizing is a way to help legitimize the industry. For an industry whose banking access is still hamstrung due to the federal government’s prohibition on cannabis, unionizing stores should be good for business owners, he says.

Licea says he hopes SpaceBuds can inspire other stores to follow suit to make budtending provide living wages for workers, as well as make locally owned dispensaries more attractive workplaces compared to corporate-owned dispensaries in town that pay its staff higher wages and benefits.

“If people see SpaceBuds — which is a pretty popular name brand place in Eugene — can unionize, all these other places may wonder, ‘Why can’t we?’” Licea says.

This story is a part of Eugene Weekly‘s reporting series on the labor movement in Oregon, funded by the Wayne L. Morse Center for Law and Politics.

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