When Ben Telford showed up for work June 23 at the Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth, R.I., he was shocked to learn that his employment was terminated.
In April, Greenleaf Portsmouth employees became the first cannabis dispensary workers in the state to unionize after a 21-1 vote to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 328. The organized Greenleaf team includes budtenders, keyholders, online team members and delivery associates.
Employed by Greenleaf since May 2020, Telford was a keyholder at the Portsmouth medical cannabis retail facility in Portsmouth, where his responsibilities included opening and closing the store, cash management and day-to-day operations, as well as performing other duties in the absence of management. He was also a member of Greenleaf’s union bargaining committee, a role he retains.
“I was definitely shocked,” Telford said of his termination. “I’m a hard worker, both on the job, at the site, and then off the job as far as the effort to unionize and get our team together and get a contract negotiated.”
While his termination came as a surprise, Telford said he had thought about the possibility.
“I’ve been a very loud voice for myself and for others on the team that worked there,” he said. “But the reason I was given the day I was terminated … was that my services were no longer required. And when I asked for further explanation, I was told that there was none needed to be given at the time, so I gathered my belongings and left for the afternoon and said goodbye to everybody.”
Telford was informed of his termination by Greenleaf’s chief of staff and director of retail operations, but he said it’s his understanding that the decision came from Greenleaf CEO Seth Bock. Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary reached out to Bock for comment but as of June 30 have not yet received a response.
According to a UFCW Local 328 press release, Telford’s termination is only the latest in a string of firings by Bock. “In the last six months, the Greenleaf CEO has fired the director of retail operations, the head of delivery, the human resources manager and the chief operating officer.”
In addition, Telford said the director of inventory at a Greenleaf cultivation facility was also terminated recently.
“It depends on the person, but, overall, it’s been very retaliatory,” Telford said. “The owner, Seth Bock, has been allowed to move as he pleases. And, overall, when people get the skills that require higher pay and have had a long tenure, he’s been known to just kind of clear house and get some fresh faces that are happy to be there, because getting in the cannabis industry is something that a lot of people want to do.”
The UFCW Local 328, which represents more than 11,000 workers in a range of industries throughout Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, is now filing unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over what the Local 328 called the illegal retaliatory firing of a Greenleaf employee.
The Local 328 release also claims Bock has exhibited a history of retaliation against employees.
Jeffery Dieffenbach, former finance director and general counsel for Greenleaf, was fired in January 2020. In September, Dieffenbach filed a lawsuit against Greenleaf to remedy and seek relief for unlawful employment practices arising under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other U.S. labor laws.
Dieffenbach, a 71-year-old Newport resident at the time he filed the lawsuit, worked for Greenleaf for six years. When he was first hired by Greenleaf as a part-time independent contractor, he was paid $30 per hour for 10 hours a week. By October 2018, Dieffenbach was being paid $90,000 per year as the finance director and general counsel, according to the lawsuit.
In a subsequent interview with WJAR-TV, a local NBC affiliate, Dieffenbach said, “I was never reprimanded. I was never given any negative comments or reviews of my work.”
While Greenleaf’s workers unionized in a 21-1 ballot count on April 5, 2021, they had filed for their union election in early March, citing concerns about job security and lack of workplace protections.
More specifically, contributing factors leading workers to organize included Greenleaf’s elimination of an employee sales incentive program that included weekly and monthly cash bonuses offered to sales associates, budtenders and delivery employees, Telford said. In addition, the company also reduced worker benefits such as a discount program for employee patients who also purchased medical cannabis from the center, he said.
“That came during the time of them kind of clearing house at the top end and getting rid of a few employees,” he said. “But it followed the history of abusive behavior and discriminatory practices from management.”
Amidst Telford’s termination, Greenleaf attempted to reinstate a new employee incentive program last week but then had to rescind that effort because it was not part of a union-negotiated contract, UFCW Local 328 Director of Organizing Sam Marvin said.
Theoretically, if such an incentive program is not in a contract, then the CEO can take it away at any time, he said.
“I don’t know what Greenleaf’s intent was, if it was a tactic,” Marvin said. “But they are required, and they have to come to the table and negotiate good faith over it, and they have to provide additional details like how it’s going to impact the workforce, who’s going to be eligible, who is not—really, they need to explain their proposal and why they’re proposing it, and they have to give their workers the chance to respond.”
Local 328 currently represents workers from four cannabis businesses, also including the Ocean State Cultivation Center (OSCC) in Warwick, R.I.; the Curaleaf medical dispensary in Hanover, Mass.; and the Cresco Labs cultivation and processing facility in Fall River, Mass.
After Greenleaf workers filed for their union election in March, the company hired Government Resources Consultants of America Inc., a counter-union organization based out of Illinois, according to an LM-20 Agreement and Activities Report filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.
The consultants’ objective? “To persuade employees to exercise or not to exercise, or persuade employees as to the manner of exercising, the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing,” according to the report.
The out-of-state, union-prevention consultants held mandatory meetings and distributed flyers to employees at the Greenleaf dispensary, according to UFCW Local 328.
“Doing what we do, we encounter union-busters all the time,” Marvin said. “It doesn’t really matter what company or what industry you’re trying to organize. And they all say the same thing. They’re all going to try to use the same kind of tactics.”
Anti-union consultants often change their tactics based on what they think will work, but the underlying intention remains the same, Marvin said.
“They’ll talk about dues, they’ll talk about strikes, they’ll talk about, ‘Give us another chance,’” Marvin said. “They’ll talk about how long the process might take. So, they kind of throw everything against the wall and they hope that it sticks.”
The Greenleaf workers remained united with their nearly unanimous vote. Telford said his voice in favor of organizing remained active throughout the process.
After he was terminated last week, union representation reached out to Greenleaf’s lawyers for further explanation. They responded that his sales performance was subpar during the month of May, according to Telford.
“And I am not a sales associate,” he said. “Now we’re working with the National Labor Relations Board to file unfair labor practice charges and seek justice for wrongful termination.”
On Saturday, June 26, the UFCW Local 328 held a one-day strike near Greenleaf’s Portsmouth care center to protest Telford’s termination. The union employees at Greenleaf voted unanimously to authorize the strike.
“I don’t even have the words to describe the gratitude I feel and the appreciation I have for everyone, and the patients that came by while we were picketing [to] express their support too— that’s something I’ll never forget,” Telford said. “It was the most humbling experience I ever had.”
The unionized Greenleaf cannabis workers released the following joint statement in the Local 328 release:
“We want to first recognize our patients and thank them for the support we have received throughout this process of unionizing. We understand that this action may have disrupted some people’s ability to purchase their medicine, which is something we take very seriously. As workers, we strive to provide the highest quality services and products that we can, because we believe in cannabis and its medicinal benefits.
“Over these past few weeks, ownership at Greenleaf has continued to make decisions that impede us from providing that quality of work. After the wrongful termination of one of our best team members, we collectively decided that we had no choice but to take this action.
“We’re proud to work in this industry and will continue to stand together in solidarity as we progress towards our goal of negotiating a contract that helps in establishing a standard within our dispensary that supports our growth as professionals and helps bring the focus of our work back to the people that matter the most, our patients.