The glass on the doors leading to Second City’s Mainstage theater lists the names of cast members from its past revues. The company employees who gathered today outside the Old Town comedy mecca won’t see their names displayed prominently anywhere. They’re ticket takers, servers, bartenders, and they stood in the cold, on the afternoon of the first snowy day of the season, explaining why the union they’ve organized deserves a seat at the bargaining table with the management.
The group huddled together, holding signs that read “Unfreeze Second City wages.” Employees, supporters, elected officials (including state rep Will Guzzardi, a former improviser), and representatives from the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America—the union Second City employees want to join—chanted “Minimum wage, maximum rage!” The Democratic Socialists of America, a member of the organizing committee, wrote in an advance notice on its website that the demonstration would “not be during the actual Second City shows to avoid the appearance of a picket line (nobody is striking yet).”
J Robert Burger, one of the union reps, eagerly circled the crowd, handing out signs and fielding questions from passersby. The employees want Second City to commit to paying a minimum wage of $15 per hour. But Burger says there are a host of related issues that impact pay.
“Workers don’t know if they have a shift until two hours before [it’s scheduled to start]—and even then they’re given more shifts if they sell more booze. [Second City] calls it ‘seniority,’ but it’s not,” he says. “Many of these employees see themselves on the stages one day, but they want a fair voice now.” When employees confronted company management about their grievances, Burger says the reply was, “This is how it’s going to be.” According to organizers, Second City management chose not to voluntarily recognize the union, so staff will vote on the matter next week.
Second City CEO and executive producer Andrew Alexander, in response to the Reader‘s inquiry this afternoon, sent this statement: “We are deeply concerned about the frustration being expressed by some of our employees here at The Second City. We are confident in our ability to work through the issues together given the chance, and are committed to fostering a positive environment to work and create.”
“This building is built on low wages,” Guzzardi told the crowd. “They’re a multimillion-dollar company. The least they can do is afford dignity and respect.”
Two active Second City actors attended the demonstration: Tien Tran from the current Mainstage revue Dream Freaks Fall From Space and Alan Linic from Fantastic Super Great Nation Numero Uno, running on the E.T.C. stage. (Second City cast are members of Actors’ Equity.) “During our outro each night,” Linic said to the group, “we ask the audience to keep the applause going for the hardest-working people in the building.”
As the demonstration ended, Burger collected signs to be used in a future protest. The driver of a beverage truck, likely full of drinks Second City employees will sell, offered a honk of solidarity.
Correction: This post has been amended to reflect the union Second City’s cast are members of, and the current employees who would be covered by the union.