Two protestors holding megaphones near their mouths at the Berlin Nightclub strike rally in August 2023. The Belmont Red Line el stop is visible in the background
Credit: Courtesy of UNITE HERE Local 1

At 8:30 PM on the first Friday of August, prominent drag performer Irregular Girl was putting on her lashes, making a home cocktail, and waiting for her boyfriend to pick her up for her monthly event, Strapped (Berlin Nightclub’s premiere dance party catering to lesbians of all genders), when she decided to cancel the show. She had just received a call from Jolene Saint, a bartender and security guard at the Lakeview venue, as well as a lead organizer for the recently unionized Berlin employees. Saint asked that Irregular Girl, her show coproducer Siichelle, and her cast not cross the picket line that night as union members protested outside the venue to speed up contract negotiations with Berlin’s owners, Jo Webster and Jim Schuman.

“And I was like, ‘Diva, sign me up. I’ll be there with a sign, girl,’” Irregular Girl told Saint as she left to protest in full drag.

Strapped is Berlin’s most attended event, where the number of attendees—which averages around 700 patrons throughout the night—is generally two times that of Berlin’s attendees for the rest of the month. 

Irregular Girl told the Reader that Saint emphasized that the show wasn’t beholden to their request, and that picketing would end at midnight, in case Strapped didn’t want to cancel. And although the event producers could have delayed the show’s opening time, they decided that decision wouldn’t have made as much of an impact on the club’s owners. Irregular Girl, Siichelle, and the cast are empathetic to the workers’ concerns. 

“I know for a fact that [Strapped] is what’s helping to maintain Berlin. So it made a huge impact for us to be closed that night,” Irregular Girl said. “It was a very easy decision for us. Although the show was important, the show doesn’t always have to go on.” 

Back in April, workers at Berlin voted to start a union, with 80 percent voting yes on the vote. Since March, the union workers, a delegate of the owners’ lawyer, and a security manager have had biweekly meetings. Still, union negotiations have stalled because Webster and Schuman themselves have not shown up to negotiate. Most of the meetings end with the owners’ representatives saying that they need to confirm decisions with ownership, resulting in many meetings ending with no resolution.

strikers and supporters at the Berlin nightclub strike rally show off picket signs
Union members and supporters at the rally show off picket signs. Credit: Courtesy of UNITE HERE Local 1

The union members have made some slow progress in achieving goals, as their initial request to management for structured training for Berlin’s security guards was approved two weeks ago. But there has been no movement so far on the union members’ requests for equitable pay and health insurance. Three weeks ago, the union voted uniformly to authorize a strike. In solidarity, the producers of both Strapped and The Saturday Night Drag Show canceled their previously scheduled events during the strike period.

“We’re dealing with capitalists here,” said Chelle Crotinger, who works security at the bar. “The best way to communicate with the capitalists is through dollars. So hopefully, this will be something that shakes them a little bit and makes them realize, ‘If this is something that they decide to do long-term, this could really hurt us.’”

Crotinger says that despite their wins thus far, the workers are feeling that the process is taking too long, and they are tired of waiting for change. 

“We’re tired of working through [staffing] issues, we’re tired of working through not being paid what we should be paid, not having the training that we should have . . . it feels to me like we’re close to the end of this process, which is a big part of why we [made] this push for the strike.”  

The Berlin union’s representative contacted the lawyers and owners an hour prior to the start of the protests. To the union’s surprise, upwards of 15 local drag performers, local unions, community members, and even democratic socialists in town for the 2023 DSA convention showed up to support.

In response to their decision to strike, Crotinger said that the Berlin owners told the union they were “disappointed.”

“Yes, it is disappointing that we had to strike,” Crotinger said. “It is not our goal to derail a good night out. Especially not [nights] like Strapped or Saturday Night Drag Show when we love and care for those performers very, very much as a crew . . . but we understand the importance of community first and doing what’s right over ‘what’s going to make me the most money.’”

Irregular Girl said that she has found through her work of producing shows and traveling with those events that available venues are everywhere, but it’s the spirit of the people that work at Berlin that actually creates the night.

Several of her friends who had bought tickets to Strapped during the first night of the strike came instead to the protest and joined the picket line, which felt like an outdoor party. Two of her friends bought 15 orders of McDonald’s french fries and 20 burgers for those picketing, while another person who was celebrating their birthday that night brought a large amount of chicken tenders and dips to share from Raising Cane’s. Someone was even passing out cigarettes. 

a union member speaks into a megaphone. they are wearing a mint green tshirt and a baseball cap. the megaphone is red and tan. the Berlin nightclub's sign is viewable in the distance
Some patrons who traveled to the club to attend the scheduled shows joined the protest outside instead. Credit: Courtesy of UNITE HERE Local 1

At one point during the protest, Siichelle and Irregular Girl grabbed the microphone to announce, “This is Berlin’s busiest night. This is Berlin’s lesbian night and lesbians stand with the union.” The crowd went crazy.

Janelle Felix, aka drag performer Tenderoni, coproduces The Saturday Night Drag Show with drag performer Lucy Stoole. The show is scheduled weekly at Berlin, and usually features five performers plus a host. Felix and Stoole made the decision to cancel their program on the second night of the strike.

Tenderoni received a message from an audience member on the first night of the strike asking if The Saturday Night Drag Show was still scheduled for the weekend because they saw online that Strapped had canceled in solidarity with the workers. He was surprised by the news, but then jumped into action; first calling the union to confirm the strike, and then messaging his cast to let them know about the cancellation.

“I immediately started to plan to strike in solidarity with the group because there was no way I was going to cross picket lines,” Tenderoni said. “Until an agreement was made or the strike was over, no Saturday Night Drag Show hosted by me was going to happen.”

When he arrived at Berlin to join the protest, Tenderoni says he felt an extreme sense of community. “It was raining. So it was very dramatic,” he laughed. 

The protests kicked off during the same weekend as Lollapalooza’s yearly visit to Grant Park. Berlin’s entrance directly faces the Belmont Red Line station. As the Friday night protest continued, a steady stream of concertgoers, seemingly coming from Lolla, arrived throughout the evening and headed toward the Berlin doors to cap off their night of partying.

“People were like, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?’ And we were like, ‘Listen, we’re on strike because these workers deserve livable wages and benefits,’” Tenderoni said. “[The patrons] were like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy.’ So I think it was really good that we had that traffic because it definitely made more people aware of what was happening. And people were joining us. It created an almost party-like atmosphere.”

the entire group of protestors and strikers poses with picket signs outside of Berlin nightclub in August 2023
Though Berlin employees returned to work on Monday, August 7, negotiations between the union and the club’s owners continue. Credit: Courtesy of UNITE HERE Local 1

On Sunday, August 6, the Berlin union called off the strike. Union members returned to work as of Monday, August 7. Negotiations between the union and Berlin’s owners continue.

“We wanted this strike to be a moment for us to show that this is the kind of support that we have. This is what we can do,” Crotinger said. “And hopefully this will shake some things loose and get this process a little bit more lubricated than it has been.”

The union not only saw a successful turnout for the protests, but also received more support via a GoFundMe that Saint and other union members created to help recoup wages lost during the strike time. As of press time, the fundraiser has resulted in $9,570 worth of donations, hitting the number the union members will need to compensate striking employees who missed out on both nights of pay at a rate of $25 an hour. The hourly amount matches the new pay scale the union is advocating for, which is $10 more per hour than most nontipped workers at Berlin receive now. They also raised enough to cover the booking fees for performers who were previously booked to perform at the club during the protest nights.

“So, if you’ve ever had a ‘Berlin Bomb’,” Irregular Girl said, mentioning one of the club’s signature drinks (a shot of vodka in Red Bull). “If you’ve ever made out with somebody at Berlin . . . if you’ve ever had a good fucking time at Berlin . . . I think that we all owe it to [the employees] to join the picket line, should they choose to strike again.”

More by Debbie-Marie Brown