LAKEVIEW — Berlin Nightclub workers are calling on customers to boycott the popular LGBTQ+ bar as they push for their first contract.
The workers held a rally Wednesday night outside the club, 954 W. Belmont Ave., where they reiterated requests that Berlin’s owners provide them health insurance and wage increases. They asked Berlin customers to stay away until they have a contract.
About 50 people marched on the sidewalk outside the club’s doors, carrying signs that read, “Queer + Trans workers are worth more than minimum wage,” and chanting phrases like, “Queer liberation, not exploitation.”
The workers unionized six months ago with Unite Here Local 1. Berlin owners Jim Schuman and Jo Webster recently rejected any wage or benefit increase beyond the legal minimum wage, according to the union.
Drag artist Irregular Girl, co-host of Berlin’s popular show “Strapped,” was among the performers who joined Wednesday’s rally, pledging solidarity with the boycott.
“Berlin has always often been a sanctuary for trans people in Chicago who do not feel safe in many other places,” Irregular Girl said. “The crowd reflects that, the performers reflect that and the programming reflects that.
“All of that is due to the hard work of the workers, many of whom are transgender themselves, all of whom are queer and all of whom are being mistreated and underpaid by Jim Schuman and Jo Webster.”
Berlin workers told the crowd at Wednesday’s rally that the owners are not coming to meetings or communicating.
“I think an aspect of it that I find very troubling is that [the owners’] way of framing it was that they said we will abide by the city of Chicago,” said bartender Jolene Saint, who has worked at Berlin for six years and is one of the lead organizers behind the contract effort. Saint is among the staff members who are paid minimum wage and don’t have employee health insurance.. “So the new tipped employee minimum wage ordinance … is going up from $9 to $15. … They’re not giving us raises; they’re complying with the law.”
Under the city’s One Fair Wage ordinance passed this month, the so-called subminimum wage that tipped workers earn will be phased out over the next five years, bringing the wages for tipped employees up to the city’s full minimum wage by 2028.
None of Berlin’s union employees work more than 27 hours a week, and the club’s part-time employees earn a base hourly wage plus tips, according to a statement from the owners posted on Berlin’s website. All workers make between $22.50-$57 per hour with tips, the statement said.
The union’s demands for higher wages, health care and pension benefits would cost Berlin more than $500,000 in the first year of the contract alone, according to the owners’ statement.
“It would be nice to pay the employees what the union wants,” according to the owners’ statement. “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.”
Berlin opened in 1983 and has been a safe space for queer Chicagoans and visitors, offering drag shows, music and themed nights. Schuman and Webster bought the club in 1995.
In August, Berlin workers went on a two-day strike after organizers said Schuman and Webster repeatedly skipped bargaining sessions, bringing negotiations to a halt. During the strike, performers canceled their shows in a show of support.
Schuman has advanced cancer, according to the owners’ statement. Webster is his primary caretaker, which has limited their interactions with the union, they said.
Leo Sampson, who manages social media for Berlin, said he’s worried the club might close.
“Berlin is the one place that I really enjoy coming to and that I know a lot of other people do enjoy coming to, and I don’t want to do this,” Sampson said. “It’s bittersweet, but our backs are against the wall.
“This place has survived so much. It’s survived the worst of homophobic and transphobic times. I really hope that a union isn’t what kills this place — scratch that. A union won’t kill this place. Jim and Joe and their refusal to change with the time and to give their workers a livable wage is what is going to kill this place.”
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: