Search F News...

‘Unionized Clubs Are The Future’

Workers of Chicago’s Berlin Nightclub launch a union drive.

By Featured, News

Photo Credit: Unite Here Local 1/Instagram

Jolene Saint enjoys working as a bartender at Berlin NightClub. Although her job is labor-intensive and physically demanding — as Saint works in one of the most popular gay nightclubs in Chicago — she still relishes being a part of her workplace.

“I love working in Berlin, as I get to serve the queer community. In my six years, I have done everything. I have worked as a bouncer, barback, and even a coat checker,” said Saint, who spoke with F Newsmagazine over a phone call.

For years, Saint and several other workers have been working at Berlin Nightclub, which has been serving customers since 1983. Located in a vibrant area of the city — Boystown — Berlin has earned a reputation for being one of the best clubs for Chicago’s LGBT+ community.

However, Berlin’s employees have struggled with low pay and poor working conditions.

“We have always been vocal about our grievances with our managers. But they still haven’t been solved,” Saint says. Thus, ultimately to make their voices stronger, Saint says she and her co-workers decided to unionize, joining other hospitality workers in Unite Here Local 1, a union of hospitality workers in Chicago and Northwest Indiana.

“We are not forming the union because we hate our managers or our owners. We love and care about them. And we want Berlin to continue to thrive. However, for that to happen, it must take care of its staff first. Since our earlier concerns weren’t paid much attention to by the administration, to make our voices stronger we decided to unionize,” Saint explains.

What exactly led to the union formation?

Though small groups had conversations about starting a union for some time, it was only on Mar. 1 that the staff publicly announced they were joining Unite Here Local 1. This announcement was made in an online petition where the staff members sought community support
for their union drive.

“We, the workers at Berlin Nightclub, are organizing a union for safety, respect, and better working conditions. Berlin is an important gathering space for the Chicago LGBTQ community, and we are the core of what makes Berlin special,” reads the petition, which has received more than 2,600 signatures as of now.

On Mar. 3, the staff demonstrated in front of the club. Joined by members of Howard Brown Health Workers United (HBHU), the workers marched around the club chanting slogans.

Saint said one of the major reasons for the union drive is “ridiculous” low wages. Saint herself earns $9 per hour plus tips, which is barely above the minimum wage for tipped workers in small businesses in Chicago.

And to make their lives more difficult, Berlin Nightclub offers no health insurance, which is a particular issue for the staff members who are queer and have more health requirements, Saint said. “I might lose my Medicaid coverage soon,” she continued. “If Berlin could help me with my medication, it would be great. Those who work in Berlin have no health care. But we all work in an environment where most of us can get sick or be met with accidents. Thus we want to be taken care of.”

In Berlin, however, low pay and lack of health insurance are not the only major issues for the workers. “Although the work environment is decent and we all get along, there is a lack of communication between the employees and the management. Sometimes we will find
out that the bar is closing through social media posts of the club. There are no mass emails forwarded to us about the schedule changes, which is a problem for us since we work at night time and we can be at more risk,” explains Sydryl Denila, a security officer at the club.

“We did try to work with the management to make them hear our concerns but nothing happened. So as a group, we saw unionizing as the greatest course of action to get the seat at the table,” Denila shares.

Photo Credit: Unite Here Local 1/Instagram

The union’s next steps

According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), there are two ways a union can be formed. Firstly, it’s by winning the elections that the NLRB can organize once at least 30 percent of workers sign union authorization cards. Secondly, it’s through voluntary recognition. NLRB states on its website that an “employer may voluntarily recognize a union based on evidence — typically signed union-authorization cards — that a majority of employees want it to represent them.” Furthermore, once a union has been recognized, the employers are required to meet with union representatives to negotiate a contract detailing compensation and working conditions

However, even before they win the contract, the workers at Belin want management to meet some immediate needs. For instance, they want fair wages and better security, said Chelle Crotinger, who works as a security officer. “Working in nightlife is a stressful job. You have to deal with all kinds of customers. Some might be having too much fun. So we have to make Berlin a secure place for its staff because we are the ones who are on the ground,” Crotinger says. Similarly, small things like having a heater in the vestibule for guards and proper uniforms for the staff are among the union’s demands, Crotinger adds.

How is the administration reacting?

Workers at the nightclub told F Newsmagazine that the administration hasn’t done anything deliberately to obstruct their efforts.

“Until now, we haven’t met with any retaliation,” Crotinger says.

In an email exchange, the owners of the club, Jim Schuman and Jo Webster, said that they are “committed to the well-being of Berlin and its employees, who they have always considered to be their family.”

When asked if they would voluntarily recognize the union, they said: “As the owners of Berlin, we believe that it is best to have this conversation with our employees. The purpose of the National Labor Relations Act is to facilitate that conversation, and the National Labor Relations Board has a procedure to follow in order to do that. We intend to follow the law and the legal process in order to have that discussion.”

What’s next?

The Berlin staff are the first queer nightclub in Chicago to organize a union. They see their organizing effort as a win for queer people, and they stress the importance of having unions to protect queer workers who are currently being attacked legally, socially, and culturally in the U.S.

“We are creating a legacy,” expresses Crotinger. “As a community, we didn’t have many privileges. But by forming a union we want to show that we can flourish. We are solidifying. Come to Berlin and support us. Unionized clubs are the future.”

Ankit Khadgi (MAVCS 2024) is a Nepali journalist based in Chicago. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Guardian, the Kathmandu Post, and the Gaysi Family.
This user account status is Approved

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 + 4 =