Workers at a board game cafe searched for a union and won

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A golden glow illuminated employees huddled inside a Hex & Co. coffee shop on the Upper East Side, a haven created for board game enthusiasts to gather for fantastical quests.

Meticulous campaigning was second nature to these workers: how many times had they infiltrated an obsidian castle or defeated a warlock? They had been immersed in this particular adventure for months, navigating through a labyrinth governed by strict rules and heartbreaking by unknown tasks and tests. Now they met to plan their final triumph: unionization.

That Tuesday in September, Hex & Co. workers confronted their bosses with a demand for recognition. Less than two months later, they voted to join Workers United, the same group that has been organizing workers at Starbucks stores across the United States. Workers at Hex & Co.'s three New York City locations were just the first board game cafe employees in the city to unionize. Workers at Uncommons and Brooklyn Strategist followed this month.

All of the stores are owned by Jon Freeman, Greg May or both, and they pleaded with their employees not to unionize, saying a union would kill the “flexible, open-door atmosphere we have tried to foster.”

Teaching board games is a far cry from wielding a miner's pick or working endless hours on an assembly line. In fact, many of the cafe workers said they hung out at their workplaces in their off hours. But in the end, complaints about dollar-an-hour raises and gangs of unruly children reigned supreme: among the 94 employees who voted, only 17 dissented.

“There's no group of people better at organizing than a group of nerds,” said Jennifer Taylor, who works at the Brooklyn Strategist. “We are all people who are hyper-focused and hyper-specifically excited about something, and we have a job to do it. And we are going to fight to the death to defend that.”

Only 10 percent of American wage and salary workers were union members in 2022, a record low, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The food service sector membership rate was less than 4 percent. But this fiscal year saw the highest number of proxy filings since 2015, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

Young workers “are willing to take risks because they feel their future is at stake,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of workforce education research at Cornell University.

After navigating a recession and a pandemic, many found themselves making minimum wage while corporate profits soared, he said.

But Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, said costs for food service companies, many of which survive on tight margins, had risen dramatically thanks to inflation. The group's pre-holiday survey of 281 New York City restaurants and bars found that labor costs were the top concern for 72 percent.

“The pandemic just took what was a difficult business environment and made it impossible,” Rigie said.

Tensions over wages and working conditions had been brewing in the city's board game cafes before unionization plans began this fall.

In stores, customers can roll the dice in weekly Dungeons & Dragons sessions or play one of the games on the shelves. In the afternoons, children gather around tables absorbed as counselors explain the arcane rules of imaginary worlds.

But in interviews, workers said wages were low and staffing was inadequate. Some described frenetic scenes at birthday parties or tournaments they had to watch alone. Dungeon masters, who facilitate the games, often did hours of unpaid prep work.

Sasha Brunetti, an 18-year Hex & Co. employee, said members hoped unionization would add structure: “Owners aren't good at rescheduling meetings or responding to emails, or they make changes without telling us, like menu changes . .”

Freeman and May did not respond to phone messages and emails seeking comment on the complaints. But in an October memo to Hex workers, they questioned whether a union was necessary. “It will lead to a more formalized 'by the book' relationship that benefits no one except Workers United,” they wrote, adding that they had heard of employees being “coerced” into signing petitions.

Joseph Valle Hoag, 28, said he did not need coercion. He started at Hex & Co. as an after-school counselor, juggling two other jobs to supplement the $17 an hour he earned teaching board games.

Three months into his job, another worker approached Mr. Valle Hoag to ask him to organize, and Hex employees drafted a petition demanding better conditions.

“I would literally hang out outside stores waiting for people's shifts to end, so I could talk to them quickly,” Valle Hoag said.

A group of employees gathered after hours at Riverside Park, near Hex's Upper West Side location. There, they listened to Workers United representatives talk about the strict rules of the unionization game and mapped out a strategy to win a binding contract.

Thus the search began and employees of other board game cafes in the city began to organize their own troops.

Christine Carmack, 28, helped round up her coworkers at the Brooklyn Strategist.

“We met at a nearby coffee shop and I remember how almost electric it felt every time a new coworker arrived,” Carmack said. Everyone who had been invited showed up to the first meeting of what is now the Brooklyn Strategist Workers United. One who had a job as a dog walker stopped by with the dogs.

“I've been on that peak for the last month and a half,” Ms. Carmack said.

On September 29, after refusing to voluntarily recognize the union, the owners of Hex & Co. ran in an NLRB-supervised election, and in November, the employees' roll of the dice paid off. Members are now preparing to negotiate an agreement and assume union dues of $9 a week for those who work more than six hours a week.

But despite everything employees said was missing from their workplaces, the idea of ​​quitting was equally unsatisfying.

Brooklyn Strategist employees come to the store on their days off to participate in tournaments. At Hex & Co., staff members get together at music events and parties, with board games, of course.

On a recent Monday night, Hex Workers United celebrated the election victory at the Workers United NY/NJ offices in Midtown. Grease-stained pizza plates and half-empty beer bottles littered the tables. People walked past card games and watched Zev Anderman, a 19-year-old employee, perform magic tricks.

“If an owner comes and says, 'We're a family,' you're not really going to believe it,” Anderman said. “It's them trying to be nice so they don't have to pay you more. But legitimately, I think we are a family here.”



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