This June, former House of Kava workers began picketing in front of the Bushwick location.
According to Krisstofer Marchena, a former worker who began his job last fall and who helped organize the workers, the job was fine at first. But then he said that he and other workers had to deal with hours being cut, feeling micromanaged, having their pay docked and dealing with long angry texts in the middle of the night.
“I couldn’t plan ahead to meet someone for dinner or hang out for about half a year,” he said. “I didn’t know what days I would be working.”
Marchena and a few workers then got together and during a meeting earlier this summer, they came with a list of demands including consistent schedules and not having their commission taken away from. They were fired for organizing.
Marchena explained that Kava and Kava House is more than just a drink. It’s a community of people. The drink itself is made from the root of the Kava plant. The tea has been known to have calming and even pain relieving properties. People new to kava usually start out with a few drinks and eventually reduce it over time as it becomes more and more effective.
But for so many in the community, it’s a way to stay connected to people and have fun somewhere without using alcohol or hard drugs. So many workers and regulars have used going to House of Kava to stay sober and to make new friends in what they considered to be a supportive environment.
Sella Malin, another former worker and protest organizer explained that she had dealt with working unexpected shifts and what she described as changing rules.
“There was never any clear disciplinary structure, like from the beginning one week you’d get reprimanded for something and the next week you’d do the same thing and no one says anything,” she said.
Malin said that at first, she was convinced that she had to come in half an hour early before opening the bar. Marchena also said that he was at times unsure if he was doing the right thing at work.
“They’d say ‘no you’re fine’ but later on they’d be like ‘you made this mistake, this mistake and this mistake’ so now you can’t have these shifts… you’re not responsible’… they were insulting us personally,” he said.
Current manager Vanessa Lopez says that she thinks some of the events that lead to the picketing was a misunderstanding. She had gone to Miami with the owner to establish a new business
“There were rumors going around that I was going to come back from Miami and fire everyone,” she said. “I was only going to fire one specific person when I came back.”
According to Lopez, the owner of House of Kava has been advised by her lawyer not to comment on the situation. She also verified that the owner sent out cease and desist letters to several protestors and former regulars that have stood by the union.
“The cease and desist letters were sent in the mail to stop spreading rumors in front of the bar,” she said. “There were crazy accusations.”
Lopez said that as a former regular, she personally felt hurt by the accusations and didn’t want people to think that she or the owner were against unions.
“I think unions are great, but the way they went about it was the wrong way,” she said. “There was a lot of resentment and anger.”
However former House of Kava workers hold steady to saying that they felt overworked and underrepresented at the kava bar.
There were longtime regulars who protested with the new union throughout June and July. They assisted organizers like Marchena and Malin with getting nearby residents to sign their petition and handed out flyers detailing their experiences at the kava bar.
Ben Gantz, a who was a Kava House regular, said that he had noticed the high turnover rate for workers. He recalled seeing the owner yell at a bartender for making a mistake.
“Almost everybody who ever worked at the bar never came back, at times I was told they were banned for life. That seemed to be a very strange pattern to me,” Gantz said. “It was really uncomfortable.”
He was also one of the protestors who received a cease and desist letter, and isn’t allowed back into the bar – but he also hoped that things could be resolved and that future workers don’t have to deal with the same conditions that he and the group protested this summer.
“I just wanted the owner to listen to the union… will she reinsate the workers that were fired?” Gantz said.
The United Kava members recently held their final protest and posted a video on their Facebook page:
They’re currently focusing their efforts on rebuilding the community and holding popups at Caffeine Underground every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Organizers like Malin and Marchena think it’s important to continue spreading awareness about the kava and kratom community, especially now that they don’t see House of Kava as their “home” anymore.
“We do this because we love the community here, and we want to stand up for each other,” said Malin.
There’s also a report about the Kava Union organizing in AM New York.