Berlin Nightclub workers are calling for people to boycott the LGBTQ+ club while they push for their first contract, which they hope will include increased wages and access to healthcare.
Berlin Nightclub workers unionized in April with UNITE HERE Local 1 with the goal of advocating for better working conditions, increased wages and healthcare benefits. The club's owners have said the demands made of their business would prove too costly.
Jolene Saint, who's worked in various positions at Berlin Nightclub, said she felt unionizing was a "no-brainer" because she's heard her colleagues echoing similar concerns about safety, wages and healthcare benefits for the six years she's worked there.
A high rate of staff turnover due to low wages has created an environment that feels unsafe and has made it difficult for people to "put their roots down" and "put work into the space," Saint said.
"Everybody in the bargaining unit loves Berlin, the thrust of the unionization effort has been that we want Berlin to continue to exist," she added. "The way that it's operating right now is, quite frankly, untenable. It's not good for the people who work here or for the people who come to the club."
Since opening in 1983, Berlin Nightclub has developed a reputation for being a safe haven for people who aren't accepted in mainstream LGBTQ+ clubslike trans people, lesbians and the BIPOC communityby welcoming a variety of performers and celebrating marginalized identities.
"It's clear that Berlin is a place for the weirdos, for the outsiders, it's a place that feels fucking cool," said Irregular Girl, who's performed at Berlin Nightclub for the past seven years and hosts the popular lesbian drag show Strapped there each month. "It doesn't feel as commercialized. I think it's important to have these spaces that don't cater to the majority."
"But their employees aren't being treated well, they're not being recognized and they're willing to make sacrifices to their paychecks because they recognize the importance of this club," Irregular Girl said.
Since the workers announced the boycott Oct. 25, multiple drag performers canceled their shows that were scheduled for the weekend before Halloween, which is usually a popular time for the club.
"We've seen all the performers this weekend cancel their shows and I imagine most performers will continue to cancel, and I just think that's really amazing and brave of them to stand in solidarity with us," Saint said. "It's really moving and means a lot."
Workers previously went on strike for two days in August after the Chicago drag community published an open letter pledging to support the Berlin Nightclub workers with any strike or boycott.
"I feel so grateful to the community for all the support they've shown us throughout this entire process," Saint said. "I think it speaks to the level of solidarity and the nature of this community, as one that takes care of the people within it."
Since the workers began organizing a few months ago, Berlin Nightclub's owners Jim Schuman and Jo Webster have addressed a few of the workers' concerns, including repairing the building's facade and securing a space heater to help security staff stay warm in the winter, Saint said.
"There has been progress, but frankly, a big concern for the union right now is that things have been moving slower than they need to be," she added. "There are key things the company disagrees with us about, and those are sort of the impetus and the essence behind the boycott."
In an open letter, Schuman and Webster said they believe workers are already paid fairly after tips and that they aren't required to pay for employees' healthcare since the majority work part-time. They added that the cost of providing increased wages and benefits would cost nearly a half million dollars in the first year of the contract. Schuman has stage 4 cancer, and Webster is his primary caretaker, so Berlin's management personnel and legal representatives have negotiated on their behalf, the letter also noted.
The union's proposals "included raises ranging from an additional $10/hour to $13/hour, before tips, equating to an overall 58% to 132% increase in wage expenses. The union has also demanded that every Berlin employee represented by the union who works a minimum of one 7-hour shift per week, be considered full-time and thus receive free healthcare coverage and pensions to be paid in full by Berlin. This point alone would amount to an additional cost to Berlin of $1,600 per employee per month in the first year of the contract."
The letter added, "It would be nice to pay the employees what the union wants. Unfortunately, agreeing to the union's demands will make Berlin non-competitive, and result in a large increase of costs to our customers, causing Berlin's patrons to go to other venues."
Saint said hospitality workers deserve to make more than minimum wage and have access to healthcare, just like any other worker.
"If clubs or institutions like Berlin, that purport themselves to be pillars of the LGBTQ+ community, want to say they're havens for the community, then they need to take care of the community," Saint said.
Workers organized a fund to help with lost wages during the boycott at: www.gofundme.com/f/berlin-workers-strike-fund . Schuman and Webster's full response is at www.berlinchicago.com/union.html .