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Chicago's Berlin nightclub closes doors; union says club made "wrong decision"

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CHICAGO (CBS) -- The iconic Chicago LGBTQ+ nightclub Berlin has closed its doors after 40 years in business.

The closure drew a message of disappointment from the hospitality union UNITE HERE Local 1, which had launched a campaign to unionize the workers at the nightclub.

Berlin announced that "the party" at the nightclub, on Belmont just east of Sheffield Avenue in Lakeview, ended at 5 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 19.

"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's owners wrote. "It was a remarkable tornado of talented performers and staff, inspired friends and customers, a crazy location and a lot of dreams."

But the owners wrote that the expenses of increased security, insurance and licensing, equipment, and rent became an issue – and they did not want Berlin to turn into a "bottle service, VIP area venue."

"So the doors are locked. The music is silenced and our dreams are now memories," the owners wrote. "We hope you made some memories with us and that you smile when they visit you."

UNITE HERE Local 1 said in a social media post that it was informed of Berlin's intent to close permanently a day after it actually happened. The union said the workers at het nightclub are "heartbroken," and called it "the wrong decision."

"Our union campaign was always centered around creating a Berlin that is better for the workers, better for the artists and performers, better for the patrons, and better for the community. That is still true," said UNITE HERE Local 1. "We made clear that the company that our original proposals were not final and we were negotiating in good faith to reach an agreement that was financially practical for the business. We continue to believe that businesses that refuse to value our work above minimum m wage do not belong in our community. They cannot survive because we know our worth."

In a news release, the union said the owners of Berlin rejected their proposals for seven months at the bargaining table – and never showed up to bargaining sessions in person.

"Berlin's owners decided to close rather than offer us more than minimum wage. 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," Jolene Saint, who has worked as a bartender at Berlin Nightclub for six years, said in a UNITE HERE news release. "I am proud that my co-workers and I are standing up for what we deserve in a world that so often undervalues and dismisses queer and trans people.  I am so grateful for all the performers, DJ's, hosts, producers, and patrons who stood in solidarity with us throughout this process. I know the resiliency and collective care of this community will help us to keep pushing for what we are worth."

But in an open letter from published earlier in the year on the nightclub website, owners Jim Schuman and Jo Webster said Berlin is not – and never has been – a "true full-time employer," and said Berlin's part-time employees earn a base hourly wage along with tips.

"Our coat check employees, post-pandemic, typically earn an average of $35/hr. Our barback employees typically earn $47/hr, while our bartenders typically earn $57/hr. Our most recently hired security employees earn an average of $22.50/hr, which is above the Chicago average," the owners wrote. "We always want our employees to be paid well. Our employees work hard and deserve to be paid fairly and competitively. And we believe they are, especially when compared to typical Chicago bars and nightclubs."

Berlin wrote that the union's economic proposals included raises from an additional $10 to $13 per hour before tips – and also a demand that all Berlin employees who work a minimum of one seven-hour shift per week be considered full-time, and receive free health care coverage and pensions to be covered fully by Berlin.

The letter said the union's proposals would cost Berlin over half a million dollars, and the bar was already surviving on a slim margin.

Schuman and Webster also wrote that they were shocked when Berlin's unionized workers went on strike and picketed on Aug. 4 and 5.

"Our entertainers and many of our staff were asked not to perform," Schuman and Webster wrote in the open letter. "As we rent our space, Berlin has high fixed costs and we can ill afford to lose a sold-out weekend in the summer or continue to operate with such uncertainty."

The single-weekend August picket and boycott were only the first. In an article published just this past Friday, the Chicago Reader's Debbie-Marie Brown wrote this past weekend was the fifth in a row of a new picket and action – in which patrons and performers have been boycotting Berlin at the request of union workers. 

The Reader article said bar attendees have not been going and the club has been nearly empty, and "highly-anticipated" music and drag shows such as the queer punk and goth night Studs and Spikes; the all-Black drag show Kinfolk; the comedy show Gag; and the sapphic dance party Strapped, were not held as scheduled at Berlin this month.

Berlin was founded in 1983 by Tim Sullivan and Shirley Mooney. Schuman told the Windy City Times in a 2013 article that Sullivan and Mooney wanted Berlin as an alternative to what they said were the only options at the time – "either leather bars or what Shirley would call sweater bars."

So-named for the cabaret scene in Berlin during the Weimar Republic of 1930s Germany, the nightclub – as described in the USA Today 10 Best Guide – became known as "a dancing planet of glitter and glee."

Schuman and Webster took over Berlin in 1994 after Sullivan died of AIDS.

The open letter from the bar noted that Schuman has stage 4 cancer, and Webster – who is his husband as well as his business partner – is his primary caretaker.

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