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Workers at a Chicago LGBTQ Nightlife Mainstay Walked Off Their Jobs

Berlin nightclub and its union are in contract negotiations

Three people dance on a stage inside Berlin nightclub. A crowd surrounds them on the floor, also dancing.
Employees of the iconic LGBTQ club went on strike Friday.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

Employees at Chicago’s legendary LGBTQ nightclub Berlin walked off the job at 10:40 p.m. on Friday, August 4, just as the nightlife institution was supposed to open for the evening, to picket on the sidewalk outside on Belmont Avenue.

It was a start of a two-day strike that continued through Saturday with non-union contract performers including Irregular Girl, Siichelle, and Tenderoni canceling their scheduled shows in solidarity. The union plans to return to the bargaining table with management next week after the strike that ended Sunday, August 6.

Workers’ concerns over wage increases and healthcare coverage remain unaddressed, says Jolene Saint. Saint, a bartender, is part of a three-member bargaining committee. Four months have passed since Berlin employees voted to join Unite Here Local No. 1 and union members are frustrated by ownership, who they say haven’t attended bargaining sessions.

Saint says Berlin owners Jo Webster and Jim Schuman have yet to appear at a session and their absences have slowed the negotiation process to a crawl. Still, they’ve made progress on issues including de-escalation training for staff, basic first aid, and proper Narcan administration.

“The idea behind the strike is essentially that we’ve been bargaining but the people on the other side of the table are a lawyer and one of the managers at the club,” bartender Jolene Saint says. “Neither has any executive decision-making power so they can’t agree to anything... We want [Webster or Schuman] at the table for bargaining, to have a conversation and hash it out with someone who can actually make a decision.”

Berlin management expressed surprise over the walk-out and subsequent strike in a statement to Block Club Chicago. Unlike ownership at Colectivo Coffee, Webster and Schuman did not file objections with the National Labor Relations Board over the union election, telling the Tribune in March they were “committed to following the law and the NLRB process.”

As in Hollywood, where the screenwriters’ strike has passed the 100-day mark with no clear end in sight, the union action at Berlin has tapped into the foundational labor concept of collective action. LGBTQ nightlife workers across the city have reached out in support, Saint says, and union members from Howard Brown Health joined in the weekend’s protests — a phenomenon she’s heard is unusual in hospitality industry union campaigns.

“It was very courageous for all of the performers not to cross the picket line,” she says. “I think that’s one of the plus sides to organizing in this community. We have that kind of connection and understanding with people already. To see it in practice like that is really beautiful.”

Disclosure: Certain roles within Eater are unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East.


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