Tensions were running high on Tuesday night. A group of cafe workers sat idly by at The Bean on 771 Broadway fidgeting and waiting for the results of their union recognition election. They were playing board games to keep their mind at ease — doing what they do best with the coworkers they love.
Before the night was done, the Hex & Company workers were celebrating a 50-16 win in their vote for union recognition at their Union Square location at 801 Broadway. Now they face the challenge of negotiating their first union contract.
Hex & Co is a small New York chain run by Jon Freeman and Greg May. Freeman created the Brooklyn Strategist in 2012, a board-game cafe that specializes in after-school programs for children. May is best known for opening the Uncommons in 2013, a Greenwich village board-game cafe that caters to adults. Together they created Hex & Co, which has three locations and according to the workers, has problems that need to be addressed.
“Everybody has different reasons for wanting to form a union. The biggest ones were poverty wages… clear bias in management on who didn’t didn’t get promotions,” said Joseph Hoag, a barista and after-school counselor who is making only $12.50 an hour plus minor tips, often not even coming out to an hourly minimum wage. “We wanted more regulation because it was very loosey-goosey.”
The three Hex & Co cafes are stationed in Manhattan and arehighly trafficked. Workers say they don’t know how much in sales they’ve brought in to the company, but do feel especially spread thin for the amount of guests they are subject to accommodate everyday.
“I work six days a week, usually six-hour shifts each day. We’re getting burnt out. People aren’t signing up to do the actual shift; we’re having issues getting parties to get hosts for because everybody’s working so much,” said Mikayla Wilson, an event coordinator that makes $19 an hour.
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Unlike regular cafes, Hex & Co brings a niche quality that drives their consumers to stay, spend, and come back for more. The cafe serves food and drinks, provides boardgames, and coordinates parties for patrons. Event coordinators are stationed at $18 an hour but can be promoted if they pass a test. This test requires event coordinators to sit down with May and Freeman and demonstrate to them their knowledge on an advanced game.
“The way they do it is that they act as children. It is the weirdest roleplay I’ve ever done in my life,” said Wilson. The promotion includes a one-dollar-per-hour increase in wage and a slightly altered job title. Not everyone has been so lucky to get a promotion, and if they do, it was a fight to get there.
Lauren Tudor, a 26-year old employee deals with a chronic illness, works as an assistant director and event coordinator. Though her time at Hex & Co has spanned roughly almost three years, in the past year her bosses have increased her responsibilities.
“I am exhausted. I am overworked. I cannot afford [medication and doctors visits] right now for myself… I asked one of the owners to sit down with me. I was like, ‘I literally cannot work this job unless I’m making bare minimum $22 an hour,’ ” said Tudor. Both owners were receptive as well as giving Tudor a small stipend which she uses for medication.
Tudor is currently one of the only workers at Hex&Co making close to a liveable wage in New York, which is a crucial issue for the workers.
“Whenever any company is unionized, there’s immediately going to be a pushback,” Tudor said. “I am hoping that they’re at least willing to listen and bat it out. Because nobody wants to see the business struggle to pay staff. But its staff are struggling to live on their pay right now.”
The Hex workers said they didn’t intend to form a union when they first approached management with their concerns. But after failing to make progress as an unofficial group of workers, they filed for union recognition with the National Labor Relations Board at the end of September as Hex Workers United. They affiliated with Workers United, the national union that is the home of Starbucks Workers United which has unionized more than 350 Starbucks stores over the past two years. Hex Workers also received advice and support from the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, a group that formed during the pandemic to assist unorganized workers who want to take collective action, including starting unions.
“Now we take a quick break and then get back on the bargaining table,” Hoag said after the union’s victory on Tuesday night.
The owners of Hex may soon have more challenges on their hands. Workers at the two other stores owned by Freeman and May — Brooklyn Strategist and Uncommons Cafe — announced at the beginning of November that they were seeking union recognition. In light of the big victory for Hex workers, the union is going to step up pressure on May and Freeman for voluntary union recognition, at Brooklyn Strategist and Uncommons Cafe, a source at Worker United told The Indypendent. Workers at the different stores intend to align their objectives when contract talks begin whether the owners agree to joint bargaining or not.
“As we were approaching our first initial ask, we just wanted some bare minimums,” Wilson said. “I think when we move to bargaining, there might be more things we put on the table, but as of right now, we just made a bunch of strong points.”