dancers inside the Berlin Nightclub in Chicago
Revelers at Berlin Nightclub Credit: Kirk Williamson

About 15 workers from Berlin Nightclub stood outside the 40-year-old Lakeview venue on March 11. They were a few dozen feet from the Belmont Red Line station, in a gaggle, below a steady downpour of flurrying snow that wouldn’t stick. Because of the weather, the streets and buildings all had a thin, wet film. The nighttime lights from nearby bars and restaurants danced in the water’s reflection.  

The workers had just finished an hour of picketing and stacked their “Union, yes!” signs against a light pole before walking off to grab a bite or prepare to clock in for the Saturday night shift. The scene represented one of the first moments in recent Chicago history that workers at a nightclub have participated in an organizing effort.

Chelle Crotinger (they/he) works security at Berlin and told the Reader that this was their second night outside in March, in the vestiges of late Chicago winter, picketing to raise awareness for their recent efforts to organize staff. “It was still cold,” Crotinger said, referencing the previous week’s weather. “But we didn’t have the flurries and the rain and shit,” he laughed.  

Crotinger was having fun so far and particularly enjoyed seeing people pass by, jump in line, and pick up signs to picket with the others. Members of Howard Brown Health Workers United, who a few months ago held a three-day protest against their employer (the largest LGBTQ+ health center in the city), also joined in on the occasion.

“The community has really been rallying around us,” Crotinger said. Several drag performers acknowledged the unionization campaign in their numbers over the last few weeks. Performer True Romance made a huge blanket that read “Berlin Union” and unveiled it during her set. Another night, at the venue’s “Purim Party, staff handed out fliers that included a QR code leading readers to the Berlin workers’ online petition on Action Network, calling for support for the future union. 

“It’s really cool to be able to stand in the middle of a busy city street and yell, ‘Queer liberation, not exploitation!’” said Crotinger. “That’s really fucking sick.” 

Angel Aldiy (she/her) and Binky Barrara (she/her) approached me together, both high energy and glowing despite the weather. Aldiy and Barrara work as a coat checker and doorperson, respectively, but each has worked at least two other staff positions at the club. They said they were only looking for respect from club management, that they wanted to let the owners know that the group is peaceful, and that they only want what’s best for the community that Berlin’s staff has organically created through their alternative queer programming.

“It’s refreshing, honestly. The last picket that we did, I got to play the drums,” Barrara said.

Both seemed chilly but unbothered by the weather. “I will walk through anything that I need to to get this union recognized,” Aldiy told the Reader. “I think it shows a level of passion, a level of love that we have for each other, that not a lot of places I’ve worked at in the past have had in their environment.”

The positive feedback for their demonstrations has outnumbered the negative, but there still was negative feedback on March 11. Early during the protest, Aldiy heard a heckler across the street saying “weird, outrageous stuff.” One or two people walking by gave the picketers the middle finger, and workers said they could see some people headed for nearby bars who seemed to be making jokes and comments about the demonstration.

“I understand it’s like a holiday weekend, and people let go of their inhibitions,” Barrara said, “but it is disheartening.”

Credit: Erin Nekervis

Berlin workers are being aided in their unionization efforts by Local 1, the local affiliate of the international union UNITE HERE, which represents more than 15,000 hospitality workers in Chicago and northwest Indiana. UNITE HERE represents approximately 300,000 hotel, food service, and gaming workers throughout the U.S. and Canada. 

The workers are asking for pay increases and/or pay restructuring for security, bar, coat-check, and door workers. While workers at Berlin make the minimum wage with possible tips, the financial realities of living in Chicago can be a huge pressure that minimum wage does not fully address. They’re also asking for health insurance, proper training, and uniforms for security (specifically, shirts that plainly say “SECURITY” and cut-proof jackets to protect the workers from attendees who may enter with concealed knives), reliably functioning metal detectors, a more substantial heat source to warm workers seated in the breezy vestibule, and more communication from management about shift scheduling. 

Multiple staff members emphasized that their union organizing isn’t malicious retaliation against anyone personally or any specific policy. On the contrary, they spoke about unionizing as a preventative measure, since the health perils of an uninsured nightlife job have become gradually more apparent to them. Workers spoke of wanting to feel cared for as precarious queer nightlife service workers in the post/mid-pandemic era.

So far, the group filed for a union election under the National Labor Relations Board, which will take place amongst the workers on April 4. The group has amassed 2,653 signatures on their petition asking for community support, and 2,000 of those signatures were captured during the first three days that the petition was public.

“We are just trying to make Berlin the safest place possible in Chicago for us. We want this for us just as badly as we want this for [the patrons and management].” 

Berlin employee Angel Aldiy

Crotinger is one of several bar night shift service workers who spend their nights off performing drag at Berlin and other venues. He moved to Chicago in September 2021, but before that, they lived in the state of Washington, where one of their friend’s parents owned a bar. “She would let us come to the drag shows and run the spotlights for the queens.” 

Crotinger met her drag mother Lunatic Hex there and by 2017 had taken the drag name Tirrany Reigns. Fast forward to the fall of 2022, and Crotinger left their position at Jewel-Osco and started their job at Berlin after a few visits as an attendee and performer. 

“One of my roommates sent me posts that [Berlin] had made on Instagram that said that they were looking for security staff. And that felt like something that I could do,” Crotinger said. It has been an adjustment to get accustomed to the pace of Berlin, but working there is something they’ve loved thus far, and they love it more every day they go in.

Since he’s primarily worked security, Crotinger is familiar with their grievances, although they did clarify that security can “look like a lot of different things,” depending on what the night is. 

“It’s not unrealistic for injuries to happen to security staff,” they said. “Things, like, with backs and knees, it’s a lot of high-impact standing and running around. There’s also just a lot of people in a small space.” Staff have to be mindful of their health inside and outside of work.

Crotinger spoke of the security, bar, and rest of the staff as a united front—a team that enthusiastically has one another’s back.

“It’s a really amorphous kind of purpose that we serve, right? We’re there to make sure that people that are there are having fun. But we also have to kind of be strict at times in order to ensure that that happens,” he said. “And it’s nice to have a team behind you.”

Jolene Saint is a Berlin bartender of six years who braved a series of dissatisfying food service jobs before landing at the Lakeview club. Their friend was a bouncer at the time. “I feel very lucky that I got the job and that I got to start working there,” Saint said. “I’ve really done everything you can do at Berlin [except] being a manager or being a performer.”

For Saint, the work culture in Berlin is akin to any queer nightclub. Coworkers and customers are friends or network in the same circles outside the club. “Berlin allows me to directly work within my community, and it doesn’t feel like there’s that separation.”

The two grievances at the front of the unionization effort are for better pay and health care since many coworkers make minimum wage for a job that can be very difficult. 

“It can be a very physically demanding job for us to only be receiving the bare minimum. It is a little ridiculous. . . . It is an environment in which you can get sick or an accident can happen. And people want health care because they don’t want to feel like if something happens then they’re going to be out on a limb,” said Saint.

During their first year working at Berlin, Saint remembers getting sick frequently as their body went through the adjustment period of being “exposed to so many germs each night,” with 200 to 300 people on average packed in the space. The late hours of the job can also be draining for the body. Saint says that the repetitive actions of bartending have caused them to strain their wrist a few times.

“I will say that coat check has the worst of it because they have to run up and down the stairs to get to where the coat check is all night, and it can really just drain you. When I was doing the coat check, I would always leave that shift just totally exhausted.”

Saint says that they don’t know what management is thinking, but workers aren’t asking for anything they haven’t in the past, and the workers want to engage with the owners in good faith.

As Berlin co-owners Jim Schuman and Jo Webster told In These Times, they ​“are committed to the well-being of Berlin (our only business) and its employees” and that they ​“intend to follow the law and the legal process” outlined by the National Labor Relations Act. Workers spoke of being encouraged by the response from ownership.

But internally, feelings are murky. One of the managers, Marcus Devin, asked the Reader if we could find out why union members “. . . chose to completely exclude at least four of their hourly minimum wage ($9.40/hour) coworkers?” Devin is one of those four. Devin also expressed that in this action, the group excluded the workers who had worked for Berlin the longest (a few for over 20 years). All but one of those participating in the effort started working at Berlin after it reopened in August 2021 after the COVID-19 shutdown. 

Saint responded to this statement from Devin, saying that the organizing workers were not sure if Devin and the three others qualified as workers or managers, because they legally cannot organize with managers. The group is still seeing if the National Labor Relations Board will rule in a way that considers Devin and the other three coworkers management or not. “If [he can’t], that would suck,” Saint said. “But if he can unionize with us, then I would love for him to be a part of it, you know?” 

Devin added that he and the three others did not find out about the desire to unionize until after their coworkers filed for a union vote and delivered the petition to the bar. “They are basically forcing us into a union without including us [longtime workers] until after they already did everything.”

And knowing that you’re not being paid a lot, with just having to deal with so many shitty customers who are yelling in your face and are being homophobic, transphobic, racist, all of that. And just not getting paid enough to be dealing with that.

Leo Sampson, Berlin employee and drag artist

Leo Sampson (he/they), aka performer Luv Ami-Stoole, is the third Berlin worker and drag artist who spoke to the Reader. Sampson runs social media for Berlin and stage manages as well. He has a theater degree in acting, but Sampson fell into drag after college while figuring out their gender. Drag was a route to explore that.

“I started working at Berlin [in] late September of 2021. I had quit my previous job, put in my two weeks, and was just trying to find something else, because the other job was really bad.”

Why are the workers organizing at this moment, three years into the pandemic? Berlin was closed for much of the shutdown before reopening in August 2021. Many workers mentioned feeling a sense of precarity and fear for one another, spurred by daily news of anti-trans state legislation and transphobic vitriol normalized by respected institutions like the New York Times. But the answer to the question of why they tried to unionize when they did depends on which worker you ask.

Sampson points out that the desire for better working conditions goes back to before he started. He said that Ren, one of the general managers, inherited many of these problems before he got there too. For example, a previous issue made Berlin “big talk” at the Chicago Black Drag Council’s 2020 town hall. At the time, money received at the door was not divided equally, so many performers were not paid properly. The town hall conversation led to an internal restructuring of that system.

“Things that we’re asking for, you know, like a livable wage or better communication . . . it’s been building up for a while. And I think now just felt like the right time to do it, I think, especially in the harsh realities of the winter,” Sampson said. “And having to stand outside for hours in the cold. And knowing that you’re not being paid a lot, with just having to deal with so many shitty customers who are yelling in your face and are being homophobic, transphobic, racist, all of that. And just not getting paid enough to be dealing with that.” 

Saint is one of a few Berlin workers on Medicaid, which they can only be on because of COVID-19 legal protections. Once those end, they would be without health insurance if the workers aren’t provided it. They also believe COVID has given more service workers a desire for better working conditions.

Crotinger says that all the little things people think about when they think about work made them want to unionize. “Those little complaints of like, ‘Oh, this is a really kind of weird part of our system; this should be updated. Why haven’t we done something about this?’ It was just kind of a lot of those moments.”

As the first recently-known nightclub workers in Chicago to attempt organizing together, who are Berlin workers looking to for inspiration? For help, they are working hand in hand with UNITE HERE Local 1 to learn the successful steps for unionization. But for inspiration? Well, the answer to that also depends on which worker you ask.

Saint is inspired by the Stud, the San Francisco venue that was the first worker-owned cooperative nightclub in the U.S. They also cite Leslie Feinberg, activist and author of the 1993 novel Stone Butch Blues (who worked low-wage gay bar jobs in Buffalo, New York) as inspiration. By the end of Feinberg’s life, she helped organize community self-defense for LGBTQ+ bars and clubs.

Crotinger says that workers are looking to each other for inspiration because they feel the vacuum of Chicago bars that have yet to attempt organizing. “Historically, as queer people,” Crotinger said, “we have not been given the chance to establish and nourish legacies, whether it’s been negligence or things that have been taken away from us pretty forcefully. So in the places where we can, it’s important that we establish some infrastructure that is going to outlive us and make sure that the people that come after us are going to be held and protected.”

Workers are excited by the idea of Berlin being the first big drop in the pond for unionized Chicago nightlife, making waves for other queer clubs and businesses to attempt the same. Overall, everyone seemed hell-bent on making Berlin put its money where its mouth is in terms of providing a true trans-safe space in the middle of Boystown. For additional support, the group asks that community members find the petition, sign it, and continue to share it. 

“Berlin is like the only place in Boystown where a lot of trans people feel comfortable,” Sampson said. “This is like the only place we really get to have community and get to party and hang out with each other [in this neighborhood].” Sampson stressed he doesn’t want Berlin to close; he wants it to stay open for at least 40 more years. “I think that management is open to hearing our concerns and will help advocate for what we want. Because what we’re asking for isn’t that crazy. It’s just to be treated and compensated like a human being.”