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  • Eli Baum

Revolt of the Nerds

Unionization at Hex & Co. sets off a chain reaction among NYC board game cafes.

By Eli Baum

Illustration by Oonagh Mockler

If you’re a real board-gamer in Morningside Heights, you don’t walk down the block to Hex & Co. to buy Monopoly or Scrabble. No, you come to play: For $10 a head, you can spend the entire day immersed in a seven-player simulation of World War I or an esoteric German game about producing wooden cows and pumpkins. If you’re into Magic the Gathering, there’s a good chance your life revolves around the shop; game nights are hosted three times a week. Staff members transform into Dungeon Masters on Wednesdays, and Dungeons and Dragons fans file in accordingly. The shop offers books such as Call of the Netherdeep and Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. If you so desire, you can browse the colorful vat of four-sided, eight-sided, and 20-sided dice.

Beneath the coffees and pastries, the birthday parties, and the occasional co-working session, something is stirring.

On Sept. 26, about a dozen Hex & Co. workers gathered at the front of the store’s Upper East Side location. Employees read one line at a time from scraps of paper. They presented demands, complaints, and personal experiences with the seasoned voices of people who have dealt with drunk adults and hyperactive seven-year-olds alike. And then: “We, a supermajority of Hex Workers, are here to formally request your recognition as the Hex Workers United.” 

A tall man with a goatee stepped forward and held out a small stack of papers. Dr. Jon Freeman, one of Hex & Co.’s owners, accepted the employees’ petition, cocked his head, and began flipping through. The workers asked for the owners to respond by email and chanted as they filed out: “The workers, united, will never be divided.” The three customers left in the store watched in confusion. But for the employees at Hex & Co., a battle had begun.

Unionization officially begins when workers create a petition or sign union authorization cards and present it to ownership, and not always as theatrically as above. (Really, the process begins long before that: barista Caide Cooley, the originator of the effort at Hex & Co., started pushing for unionization in December 2022, the effort took off in August 2023, and Workers United, the broader union that Hex Workers United organized with, got involved in Sept. 2023.) The owners, in this case Freeman and co-owner Greg May, can voluntarily recognize the union. Otherwise, the workers or the employer can file with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a vote over whether to unionize. If the union becomes official, the owners have to “bargain in good faith” with a union representative about their demands, drawn out until both parties reach an agreement. (What does “bargain in good faith” mean? Great question. No one knows.) 

Freeman and May decided not to voluntarily recognize the union. They sent an email that same day telling their employees that they did not believe the workers got the signatures for the union petition fairly, and that they had not heard both sides of the story. 

The employees responded with escalation. They sent out a petition to the community, which garnered over 1,000 signatures. The workers all wore pins to work on “pin day.” They confronted Freeman and May on the sidewalk outside of the store

The nerdiness of the staff came in handy. Cooley described the union’s graphic design team as “insanely good for no reason.” The workers’ Discord channel is filled with questions like “how can I equate union action to an anime or [Dungeons and Dragons]?” Cooley, a self-identified nerd, told me that “if you like spreadsheets, you should be a union organizer.” When I asked Cooley if the owners are nerdy too, he said that his distant bosses embody “the bad part of nerd-dom.”

Reverberations of unionization began to spread to other board game cafes across New York City. On Nov. 1, The Brooklyn Strategist, a board game shop owned by Freeman, demanded union recognition. On Nov. 4, The Uncommons, owned by May, demanded the same. A month earlier, a number of Hex & Co. employees had taken the train downtown to The Uncommons to suggest that their peers push for unionization in parallel. 

As the unionization effort expanded, so did its support. The Workers of Cards Against Humanity union sent the Hex & Co. employees a letter expressing their approval. Tolarian Community College, a Magic the Gathering YouTube channel with over 900,000 subscribers, tweeted out its support for the employees of The Brooklyn Strategist.

Looking to reverse the effort’s momentum, Freeman and May began taking individual employees into the basement of their stores and giving them impassioned PowerPoint presentations. Workers describe the subterranean encounters: The owners claim that under a union, employees would be required to wear a uniform and managers wouldn’t be able to let sick employees go home. Employees also describe the owners saying that their own lives, along with their business, will be ruined by unionization. “Which is awkward,” says a Hex & Co. barista. “And intimidating.” 

In a Brooklyn Strategist staff meeting that was secretly recorded by an employee and then posted to Twitter, Freeman claims that he is not allowed to give out raises or promotions during the unionization process because “them’s the rules.” “Them’s not the rules,” an employee responds; employers can give out raises during a unionization process as long as they have the union’s consent. Freeman and the worker go back and forth on this stipulation for a considerable period of time. “Your attorney will speak to mine,” Freeman concludes coolly. 

When the Brooklyn Strategist was created, it wasn’t much more than a small room on Atlantic Avenue, but that was 10 years ago. With five New York locations between the two owners, few employees get to know the owners personally. (Two workers, on separate occasions and in different stores, cracked the same joke to me about the aloof owners thinking that their name is some variation of “Can I have a latte.”) In one meeting, Freeman tried to argue that unions are only necessary for businesses with absentee owners and transition management. Christine Carmack, an employee at the meeting, describes the point having the opposite of its intended effect: “I do think [these] are terms that describe The Brooklyn Strategist.”

Almost every employee I talk to mentions “the books.” Cooley gives me a rendition of an imaginary exchange between the workers of Hex & Co. and the owners: “‘We can’t give you more people.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Oh, because of the books.’ ‘Can I see the books?’ ‘No.’” The anti-unionization arguments at Hex & Co. seem to be built upon numbers that only upper management can access. 

But beyond the evasiveness of the owners and resulting frustration of the workers lies a deeper conflict. When I asked barista and occasional Dungeon Master Killian Lock why he came to work at Hex & Co. he looked me in the eyes and said: “big-ass nerd.” The fight over unionization is intertwined with a larger philosophical rift between the workers and owners. 

For the owners, the entire endeavor is one big strategy game, and they are focused on the board. (See: the game “Acquire.” Highly recommend. But seems to turn people into greedy capitalists.) Yet, a good board game goes beyond the board—it’s also made up of the people around the table, the relationships they develop, and the story that gets told. That’s how the workers see it. Many of them live together in the same few buildings which they call the “Hex Houses,” where they play endless board, card, and roleplaying games. “If you believe in saving the Kingdom in your Dungeons and Dragons game,” says barista Jackie Whittle, “you should believe in saving America and saving blue-collar workers.”

Freeman and May “want a mill of employees who come work for a year or two,” says shift supervisor Gabe Chazanov. “But the fact is, given how passionate people are about the hobbies, you do get people who stick around and who would like to make something like a career out of this.”

And it’s not only Hex & Co. No one wants to admit that a life that pivots around Magic the Gathering and Marvel movies is a life spent worshiping at the altar of some corporate executive trying to figure out which cards and which superheroes will make the most money.

My middle school afternoons were spent playing board games at The Brooklyn Strategist. Later on, I worked at the store. Freeman, meanwhile, opened three board game shop locations over the course of a decade. We would meet again years later, over Zoom, on the Friday after the unionization election took place.

Freeman went through his journey: running a small board game shop in Brooklyn, co-founding Hex & Co., and growing it into the three bustling locations that exist today. He provided me with various tips about small business ownership. He says to always buy used equipment at auctions, although the degreasing process can take a week. But don’t buy used fridges. “I used to joke [that] my nickname should be Mr. Wolf [from Pulp Fiction] because I’m called on to solve problems,” he remembers.

When it comes time to talk about unionization, he asks to go off the record because “every instance of reporting so far has … made Greg and I out to be these ogres.” (This, I think, is one of the nerdiest ways of describing bad press known to man.) He occasionally goes back on the record to make a statement about how “unions have had a very important role in our country’s work-history” and “running a small business in New York City [is] painfully hard.” He’s learned what to say and what not to say.

I can imagine workers wavering during his PowerPoint presentations—he’s quite persuasive. As I look at Freeman through the Zoom screen, I think that he might not be an ogre. He’s just a guy who likes numbers a bit too much, and he’s upset that no one is listening to him.

He gives me examples of small businesses that have unionized and then failed, business theories he’s read about in journals, and explanations about the math of retail. “How much do you think it costs to open up a business like this?” he asks. “$50,000,” I say, innocently, more to get the conversation rolling than anything else. He laughs.

For a moment, I question everythingmaybe ownership is right and unionization is wrong and the business is going to fall apart under the ravages of the union.

I think back to all the people I’ve spoken to. Whenever I ask about the purpose of Hex & Co. as a business, its employees seem flustered. It’s not quite a cafe, nor a board game retail shop; neither is it simply a place to hold Magic the Gathering tournaments, nor a place to play board games, nor a location for afterschool programs.

I remember when I first entered the shop’s Upper East Side location, where all this began, almost a month after the first union confrontation. A millennial was playing Dungeons and Dragons with three elementary-aged children. (“Just punch him,” says one of the kids. “Run at him, and punch him.”) A group of four bought a board game called Root because they liked how the pieces looked; they opened the box to find three rulebooks explaining the game. They switched to Clue instead. Two men sat in a corner playing cards while they drank beer. Hex and Co.’s product, really, is community.

What happens, then, when the shop is no longer a mom-and-pop store? What happens when a haven for gamers has to be viewed through the lens of “the books”? What happens when employees, customers, and ownership are all forced to confront the fact that their nerdy community is really a for-profit company?

From the moment when the original petition was signed by almost the entire staff, I think that unionization was inevitable at Hex & Co. Beneath the workers’ organized attempt to work toward unionization, there was a deeper frustration. The workers and community members are not a number in some accountant’s books on some imaginary desk somewhere: They’ll confront the owners in the street. Business, it seems, will be played out beyond the game board. 

The NLRB election for Hex & Co. employees took place on Nov. 14, exactly a week after Election Day. The shop was mostly empty except for two kids with Pokémon cards and a group playing a game involving birds. At 2 p.m., employees trickled in, walked to the back of the store where Freeman sat on his laptop, and descended into the basement. Many employees avoided eye contact with him. One glanced at Freeman for a moment, and the two exchanged a look that seemed loaded with meaning. 

After six weeks of presenting petitions and confronting ownership in the street and dealing with basement PowerPoints, the vote was relatively quiet. Some workers stayed for a coffee after voting. I left. The vote went until evening.

They counted the ballots an hour after the election. The unionization effort won 50-16, making Hex Workers United an official union.


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