Image Credit: Peter Dazeley via Getty Images
A historic LGBTQ+ nightclub in Chicago permanently closed this month after its employees unionized and organized a boycott in response to the club’s alleged refusal to bargain with them. One worker who spoke with Motherboard called the decision “senseless.”“The party ended at 5 a.m., November 19, 2023—nearly forty years and more than 10,000 nights from when it all began,” Berlin Nightclub’s website home page reads. “The final chapter will surely be written by the 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.”
Berlin Nightclub’s owners said meeting the union’s demands would have made the club “non-competitive." Workers maintain that all they had given the club was a preliminary proposal before negotiations stalled. The union, affiliated with UNITE HERE Local 1, posted on Instagram that on November 20, the club had shared its intent to permanently close, effective November 19. “Berlin’s owners decided to close rather than offer us more than minimum wage,” said Jolene Saint, a bartender who worked at Berlin for six years, in a statement on November 20. “We decided to organize the union at Berlin Nightclub because queer and trans workers are worth more than that. That was true then. It is still true today.”“Primarily, my first feeling was shock,” said Chelle Crotinger, a Chicago drag artist who worked security at Berlin Nightclub for around a year. “But since then the prevailing feeling has been one of disappointment. It was a senseless decision, and it would have taken the barest amount of effort to avoid it. They weren’t willing or capable to provide that, which was unfortunate.” Crotinger was referring to seven months of unsuccessful contract negotiations between the union and the club, since workers voted 16-4 in March to join UNITE HERE. According to a union press release, most of the staff at Berlin made minimum wage and had no healthcare coverage, which was why they had decided to organize. After the election, however, the union alleged that club management was intentionally stalling negotiations, and said that the club owners themselves had not come to bargaining sessions.
“The atmosphere completely changed [after we unionized],” Crotinger said. “All of us felt very at home there, and once things started to escalate in contract negotiation efforts—and the way we handled the lack of effort in negotiations—we all noticed a pretty distinct shift in the atmosphere at work. It was less welcoming. It was more of a ‘versus’ type of atmosphere.” The “lack of effort” on the club’s part included “canceled sessions, refusing to show up, not having the decency to even offer a Zoom call in order to sort any of this out despite our continued requests,” Crotinger said.In October, workers organized a boycott of Berlin, encouraging both patrons and performers to take their business elsewhere. “Berlin has always often been a sanctuary for trans people in Chicago, who do not feel safe in many other places,” said Irregular Girl, a performer at the club of seven years who hosted one of its most popular shows, in a statement at the time. “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.”For most of the seven months, the club did not make public statements about the union or contract negotiation efforts. However, a few days after the boycott began, the club published an open letter to the union on its website responding to its allegations.
“We weren’t given any kind of formal response until after the open letter came out, and that was the point of us being at the table,” Crotinger said. “Taking it to the public before bringing it to the bargaining table shows a certain amount of disrespect.” The letter stated that the reason the club owners had not come to negotiating sessions was because one of them needed to attend treatments for his Stage 4 cancer, and the other was his primary caretaker. “We have entrusted Berlin’s management personnel and legal counsel to lead discussions with the union on our behalf, though we both continue to work long hours behind-the-scenes throughout each and every negotiation session,” the letter stated. “We continue to negotiate in good faith with the union.”Motherboard attempted to reach the club's owners, Jim Schuman and Jo Webster, through multiple channels but did not receive a response. Motherboard also attempted to reach one of the club’s founders, Shirley Mooney, but did not receive a response.The owners’ open letter also outlined the union’s economic proposals, which included raises of between $10 and $13 per hour and being considered full-time to receive “free healthcare coverage and pensions…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 also wrote that none of the employees should be considered full-time, since the club was only open 25 hours per week.
“It would be nice to pay the employees what the union wants,” the letter stated. “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.”The letter states that the club had offered to “share our private corporate financials with the Union, provided they sign a legally binding Non-Disclosure Agreement,” but that the union had instead “decided to lay waste to Halloween week [a major event held by the club]” without notifying management. In a post after the closing was announced, the union said that its proposals had only been preliminary, and that it had been committed to finding a solution that was “financially practical” for the business. “We asked for the financial information prior to making our requests, and we were told ‘no,’ so we were put in a place where we were forced to make our requests in the dark,” Crotinger said. “We went in with really high requests, knowing that this is a negotiation. There was absolutely nothing offered in return, which is simply not how negotiations work.” They said they did not believe the letter was an accurate representation of the bargaining efforts. Berlin Nightclub first opened in 1983, and over its four decades became a Chicago cultural touchstone known for being one of the most diverse and welcoming nightclubs. A FaceBook group dedicated to sharing memories and photos from the 40 years of its operation has nearly 2,000 members. “For the people within our community that are still facing persecution in our world, Berlin was kind of a safe haven,” Crotinger said. “I could understand people thinking that the union is the reason Berlin is no longer open, but we didn’t get to make that decision. We’re all mourning the loss of this place that meant so much to us.”