LAKEVIEW — Legendary LGBTQ+ bar Berlin Nightclub is closed after a month-long boycott amid stalled negotiations with its newly formed union.
The nightclub announced the closing Tuesday afternoon on Instagram, saying “the party ended” 5 a.m. Sunday, “nearly forty years and more than 10,000 nights from when it all began.” Berlin marked its 40th anniversary earlier this month.
“The final chapter will surely be written about by essayists, the journalists and memorialized in tribute events and documentaries, but the magic that happened at 954 W. Belmont will never be recreated. It couldn’t be,” the owners wrote.
“It was a remarkable tornado of talented performers and staff, inspired friends and customers, a crazy location and a lot of dreams. The expenses of increased security, insurance and licensing, equipment, rent and more cannot be overestimated and we could not imagine morphing the bar into a bottle service, VIP area venue. So the doors are locked. The music is silenced and our dreams are now memories. We hope you made some memories with us and that you smile when they visit you. The first ads in 1983 announced Berlin to the Neighborhood Bar of the Future. Unfortunately, the future is now and it’s time for us to go home.”
Berlin Nightclub’s owners, Jim Schuman and Jo Webster did not return a request for further comment.
The announcement came hours after Unite Here Local 1, which represents the Berlin Nightclub workers who unionized earlier this year, also posted on Instagram the club’s owners told them the bar was permanently closed as of Sunday.
“The workers of Berlin are heartbroken to hear of Jim and Jo’s decision to permanently and abruptly close this historic institution,” Unite Here Local 1’s Instagram post reads. “That is the wrong decision.
Workers at Berlin Nightclub, 954 W. Belmont Ave., had been leading a boycott of the popular LGBTQ+ bar for more than a month, claiming Schuman and Webster had never met with the union in person to negotiate its first contract.
Chelle Crotinger, a union member who started last year in the club’s security department, said Schuman and Webster didn’t come to a single bargaining meeting, instead sending their lawyer and head of security to negotiations.
Schuman has advanced cancer, according to the owners’ statement. Webster is his primary caretaker, which has limited their interactions with the union, they said.
“When we started negotiations back in April, we all felt very hopeful that we were going to be enacting some kind of long-lasting change within an institution that we all care very much about,” Crotinger said. “Then we realized very quickly that the ownership had no real intention of coming down and sitting with us, digitally or otherwise, to discuss what a better Berlin could look like.”
Prominent drag performers like Irregular Girl, co-host of Berlin’s popular lesbian night “Strapped,” joined the boycott, canceling their shows in solidarity.
“Berlin has always been a sanctuary for trans people in Chicago who do not feel safe in many other places. … 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,” Irregular Girl said during a rally outside the bar in October.
Berlin owners addressed the union’s actions in an open letter posted that week, claiming that the union’s proposals for higher wages, health care and pension benefits would cost the nightclub over $500,000.
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. All workers make between $22.50-$57 per hour with tips, the statement said.
“It would be nice to pay the employees what the union wants,” the owners wrote. “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.”
Crotinger said the owner’s numbers are inflated because they included tips, and all workers made minimum wage, totalling $9.48/hour for tipped positions and $15.80/hour for non-tipped roles.
“Conflating tips with wages is factually inaccurate,” Crotinger said. “And it is the belief of myself and the rest of our unit that the people responsible for paying our living wage are not our patrons. They are in fact the owners of the place.”
Jolene Saint, a bartender of six years at Berlin, said, “Berlin’s owners decided to close rather than offer us more than a minimum wage.”
“We decided to organize the union at Berlin Nightclub because queer and trans workers are worth more than that,” Saint said in a statement. “That was true then. It’s still true today.”
Someone at the bar also taped signs to its front doors accusing the boycotters of lying and advertising Berlin’s drink specials.
“Come in and ask the employees that are working,” the sign wrote.
Drag performers made light of the accusations by mimicking the sign during a fundraiser for Berlin’s performers and DJs last week.
In Tuesday’s Instagram post, the union wrote that its proposals were not final and leaders were “negotiating in good faith to reach an agreement that was financially practical for the business.”
“We continue to believe that businesses that refuse to value our work above minimum wage do not belong in our community,” the union wrote. “They cannot survive because we know our worth.”
“While we are sad that Jim and Jo have made this decision, we know that our community is resilient, creative and capable of dreaming things into its place. To the performers and patrons who have stood with us through this process — you make us so proud. There is nothing more powerful than our collective voices. As workers, as queer and trans people, as artists, we must continue to fight for what we deserve in this world that too often undervalues and diminishes us.”
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 after their friend and original owner, Tim Sullivan, died from AIDS, they have said.
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. Performers canceled their shows in support during the walkout.
“There’s a lot of pain in the community right now, from all sides of this,” Cocinber said. “A lot of people hurting.”
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