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Berlin Nightclub closes after 40 years due to union boycott

Famous Northalsted nightclub Berlin has closed out a month of boycott, prompted by calls from newly unionized bar staff who say the club has halted contract negotiations.

The post announcing the closure on the club’s Instagram page on Tuesday afternoon did not directly reference the union campaign or boycott.

“The costs of increased security, insurance and licensing, equipment, rent, and more cannot be overestimated, and we couldn’t imagine turning the bar into a bottle service, VIP area venue,” the post read. “So the doors are locked. The music has stopped and our dreams have now turned into memories.”

Workers at the club, which has been a haven for Chicago’s alternative gay community for nearly four decades, launched a union campaign this spring. Bar staff told the Tribune they wanted higher wages, health care and a say in the day-to-day running of the nightclub. Workers including bartenders, barbacks, security personnel and cloakroom workers voted 16-4 unionize with the hospitality union Unite Here Local 1 in elections held by the National Labor Relations Board in April.

“We love Berlin and we want Berlin to exist for another 40 years,” bartender Jolene Saint told the Tribune this spring. “And the way to do that is for employees to be taken into consideration and feel like they are not disposable.”

Berlin club owners Jo Webster and Jim Schuman released a statement through a spokesperson on the club’s Instagram account on Tuesday, but did not respond to the Tribune’s question about whether the closure was related to the boycott.

The workers called for a boycott of the club starting from October 25 because, in their words, contract negotiations had stalled. Bar staff previously went on strike for two nights this summer.

“Berlin’s owners cannot hide behind a veil of historical importance and significance to avoid paying their workers a livable wage,” social media manager Leo Sampson said at the October 25 rally. “By getting a fair contract, we will achieve a better Berlin for everyone.”

Some DJs and drag performers who are not club employees and therefore not part of the bargaining unit have vowed to cancel their shows while the boycott continues. Drag performer Irregular Girl, who hosts the club’s popular lesbian night Strapped, told the rally that the decision to cancel her shows was easy.

“I can’t invite people to my parties in good faith, to invite people to my parties who are disenfranchised, who need a place to feel welcome, and who know that we’re doing it at the expense of people like us,” he said.

In an open letter posted on the club’s website, Berlin said the union’s economic proposals include raises from $10 to $13 per hour before tips and require health insurance and pensions for all staff working at least one shift per week. The club said cloakroom workers earn an average of $35 an hour after tips, while bartenders earn about $57 an hour.

“This point alone would mean an additional cost to Berlin of $1,600 per month per employee in the first year of the contract,” the letter said. “In total, these additional fees, health care and retirement benefits will cost Berlin more than half a million dollars ($500,000) in the first year of the contract alone.”

“It would be nice to pay employees what the union wants,” the letter said. “Unfortunately, accepting the union’s demands will make Berlin uncompetitive, causing a huge increase in costs for our customers and forcing Berlin’s bosses to go elsewhere.”

The letter said Schuman had stage 4 cancer and Webster was his primary caregiver.

In an Instagram post on Tuesday, Unite Here Local 1 said the club had notified the union of its intention to close permanently effective November 19.

“Berlin workers were very saddened to hear of Jim and Jo’s decision to permanently and abruptly close this historic institution,” the union wrote. “This is the wrong decision.”

“We made it clear to the company that our original offers were not final and that we were negotiating in good faith to reach a financially practical agreement for the business,” Unite Here said. “We continue to believe that businesses that refuse to value our work above minimum wage do not belong in our society. They cannot survive because we know our value.”

Boycotts can be a risky strategy for unions, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The tactic is difficult to carry out, She said, and when they work, boycotts run the risk of damaging the company so much that it cannot operate.

“The company could have agreed with the union and chosen not to,” Bronfenbrenner said. “Instead of reaching an agreement with the union, they quit.”

Union applications from independent bars and clubs like Berlin are rare. Unions tend to direct their resources to larger groups of workers; Unite Here, for example, represents hospitality workers at Chicago hotels and gyms.

Berlin workers have attributed their unconventional union campaign to the ethos of the club, which in recent years has been voted both the city’s “Best Gay Bar” and “Best Nongay Gay Bar” by the Chicago Reader. When they launched their union campaign, staff noted rising anti-trans and anti-drag rhetoric in the US and said they saw unionization as a way to protect themselves.

Berlin said on Instagram on Tuesday that the club’s first advertisements in 1983 promoted the club as the “Neighborhood Bar of the Future.”

“Unfortunately the future is now and it’s time for us to go home,” the post read.

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