HBHWU issued a ten-day strike notice to management on November 2. Staff spent November 14 through 15 protesting unfair labor practices outside three Howard Brown Health locations, a decision supported by 96 percent of union workers. Credit: HBHWU

Editor’s note: On November 21, the union representing Berlin workers announced that the bar’s owners told the union on November 20 of their intent to permanently close, effective November 19.

“The boycott is happening as long as it takes. It will continue until we get a contract that is what we’re looking for, and that is equitable.” 

Chelle Crotinger

As Chicago’s weather straddles the line between temperate, global warming–inspired fall and its familiar brisk pseudowinter, two of the city’s labor unions are turning up the heat on their employers for paying low wages, flagrantly breaking labor laws, or doing a little of both. 

Howard Brown Health Workers United (HBHWU) and Berlin Workers union, both organizations well-known for serving the LGBTQ+ community, are wielding new tactics to pressure their ownership into taking their negotiations more seriously, more quickly. HBHWU unionized in August 2022; Berlin Workers union did the same in April 2023. Both groups are relatively young, but each has had the assistance of the Illinois Nurses Association (INA) and UNITE HERE Local 1 respectively, to bargain tenaciously.

In March, the groups teamed up for a Trans Day of Visibility solidarity-building event, highlighting how both groups are led primarily by trans and queer people and are fighting to improve working conditions.

At Berlin Nightclub, union workers, patrons, and performers are entering their fifth weekend boycotting the queer, pan-cultural nightclub on Belmont and Sheffield at the request of Berlin union workers. 

Bar attendees have largely avoided the establishment, and all DJs and performers have canceled planned events in solidarity. Highly-anticipated music and drag shows—like Studs and Spikes, a queer punk and goth night; Kinfolk, an all-Black drag show; Gag, a comedy show; Georgia’s Quarterly Report; Gay Disco Night; and Strapped, a sapphic dance party— were absent from the venue this month. The only music coming from inside the club has been from the manager’s partner.

Fifteen producers from those canceled shows hosted a Wednesday Night Drag Show at Color Club on November 15 to make up for lost wages, and the venue was packed from wall to wall. 

During the boycott, business for Berlin has continued as normal; employees still show up for shifts as scheduled. “The vibe in there is really weird,” says Chelle Crotinger (they/he), a security worker and union member at the bar. “It’s super empty and the people that do decide to cross the picket line and come inside, typically don’t really stay that long.” 

Workers have to be there, but beyond that the union requests that people continue not to enter the bar. 

As the weeks pass, management assigns shifts to workers less and less frequently, usually canceling confirmed shifts a few hours before it starts. Personal funds are tight for employees, and nearly all of them rely heavily on a second job.

Three months back, on August 4 and 5, the union held its first boycott against the establishment. It only lasted a weekend, canceling Friday’s Strapped event and the Saturday Night Drag Show. The group left those two days feeling optimistic about the club’s ownership, who they hoped would speed up at the negotiation table after witnessing the level of influence workers had on club attendance. But things did not move faster like they’d hoped. 

“It is imperative that these decisions are made, and that they’re made now,” says Crotinger. “We need to have offers coming [and] going from either side that are substantive and aiming for a true center as much as we can.” 

In the meantime, although the bar is losing money, a fund created for and by workers has raised enough to pay all employees at the rate they’re asking for, $25 an hour, for at least one missed weekend. For the following weekends, in light of donations slowing down and fewer shifts available for workers, the group’s fund manager, Jolene Saint, has been providing emergency funds to struggling workers, DJs, and show producers on an as-needed basis.

Berlin ownership responded by sending an email to all patrons on its mailing list asking for understanding and levying a laundry list of complaints at the union. First, they said, ownership has not shown up personally to the negotiation table because of one of the owner’s ongoing cancer treatments. Second, the email continued, Berlin is not and has never been a true full-time employer and, regardless, they believe their part-time employees earn above average in combined wages and tips compared to other nightclubs. Third, a health insurance plan for workers—all of whom they consider part-time—would be too expensive to make the nightclub profitable, as it would add a $1600 per employee per month cost to owners. And lastly, they expressed shock that the union would pursue even their initial boycott, as they “can’t afford” to lose a sold-out weekend in the summer. 

Ownership also posted to—and has since deleted from—Instagram an invitation to the bar on October 28 for “No Cover,” $3 drinks, and $3 lemon drop shots.

The union told the Reader it doesn’t like to see the bar empty, but it has no time frame for how long the boycott will continue, “The boycott is happening as long as it takes,” Crotinger says. “It will continue until we get a contract that is what we’re looking for, and that is equitable.” 

“You’re a healthcare organization. How can you not make sure that the lowest paid amongst you also have access to health care?”

Louis Spraggins

HBHWU issued a ten-day strike notice to management on November 2. Staff spent November 14 through 15 protesting unfair labor practices outside three Howard Brown Health locations, a decision supported by 96 percent of union workers.

Two strikes were outside clinics on the north side—at 4025 N. Sheridan and 3501 N. Halsted. The third was outside a south-side clinic at 641 W. 63rd. Strikes on both days ended with a 6 PM rally in front of the Halsted clinic. The ten-day notice was intended to give Howard Brown management time to coordinate patient care. 

On November 4 and 5, the union kickstarted its efforts with all-day picketing at all three of Howard Brown’s Brown Elephant locations, resale shops the organization runs. Since then, the workers have called for a boycott of all three stores until they get a fair contract.

Louis Spraggins is one of two partner services coordinators at Howard Brown who shares oversight of all 12 clinic locations. He’s also a member of the union’s bargaining committee. He supervises a team that helps patients find treatment for STIs, if possible, and contacts patients’ sex partners to inform them to get tested and treated. He works out of two south-side clinics, one on 55th Street, the other on 63rd Street.

Ronnie Peterson is a former Brown Elephant employee and an organizer with INA representing HBHWU in bargaining negotiations. Peterson and Spraggins gave the Reader the rundown on what’s been happening—or, more accurately, what hasn’t been happeningin negotiations between the union and Howard Brown’s leadership. `

HBHWU tells the Reader that Howard Brown’s leadership is ignoring a number of issues workers brought to the table. Spraggins says Howard Brown’s past and present unfair labor practices led to the current stalemate.

The union has filed dozens of charges against the organization for violating labor law, in particular making unilateral changes to employee work without consulting or arbitrating with them. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has found merit to many of these charges, and, in the past couple of weeks, found merit to an unlawful termination charge. The union says leadership has significantly increased the workload for some medical providers by shortening the time they have with patients in an attempt to increase the number of patients they see. Other changes made unilaterally, according to HBHWU, include unfairly disciplining or terminating employees, and cutting lunch breaks for some workers from an hour to a half hour. The union successfully pushed back on changes to their lunch hour.

The people who have shown up at the negotiation table from the HBH side—the organization’s director of labor relations, chief financial officer, and various “random” HR people, says the union—individually quit in the middle of negotiations.

“There’s been a lot of changeover, not only for just union members, but also for the executive team,” Peterson says. “Executives are not communicating with each other for sure on how bargaining is going. All of these executives that have been bargaining with us specifically, keep leaving, and then their replacements have no idea what they’re doing or what they’re getting into.”

The two also claim it took four to five months for ownership to respond to the union’s proposed economic package, which addresses wages, affordable health insurance for all employees, protections against layoffs and changes to job duties, full-time opportunities for Brown Elephant sales associates, and remote work. 

HBHWU accused leadership of purposely causing delays by giving the union incomplete financial records. Workers submitted a request for information that proved Howard Brown needed to lay off 64 staff members at the start of 2023.

The union finally managed to obtain Howard Brown’s financial records and discovered the organization’s finances are skeletal compared to the past few years because HB leveraged two-thirds of its finances to build a $53 million building on the north side, an area Spraggins says already has more-than-sufficient medical care and accessibility (most of Howard Brown’s clinics are on the north side). “Basically they decided to play Monopoly with the money,” he added.

Meanwhile, he says Howard Brown’s three south-side locations—out of 12 in the city—are in buildings that have long been in great disrepair, exhibiting brown running water, rodents, and roaches.

Peterson says the union has conceded some of its demands. But its demands were crafted to save Howard Brown from itself. The proposals include advice on ways the organization can leverage funds it’s losing out on since Howard Brown’s financial woes, the union alleges, are of their own making. 

One way Howard Brown is losing money is through layoffs and a mass exodus of workers. With fewer staff available to take appointments, it’s missing out on money from patients. Potential Howard Brown funders reached out to the union and donated to its strike fund. They told the health organization they won’t donate to its clinics until HB signs a contract with workers that ensures the organization won’t mismanage donated money in the future—like it has in the past. 

Leadership conceded on a few key areas. The union fought leadership for months on the need for liveable wages and health insurance for part-time Brown Elephant workers. Howard Brown caved, but the agreement left part-time workers to pay more than full-time staff for the same access to care. Even though they’re now eligible, care is prohibitively expensive.

“You’re a healthcare organization. How can you not make sure that the lowest paid amongst you also have access to health care?” Spraggins says. “They’re more concerned about lining their pockets than they are about investing in the staff who run their organization.” 

Howard Brown also gave into the union’s demand to provide two weeks of paid leave for staff who undergo surgery for gender-affirming care. But the LGBTQ+ organization’s first response to this request was alleging it was discriminatory, to which the union clarified that transgender individuals are not the only people to receive gender-affirming care.

“It makes me wonder, like, ‘Am I dreaming? Is this a television show?’“ Spraggins says.

Howard Brown has yet to address the union’s issues with wages and insurance coverage. Spraggins says workers pay a higher percentage for insurance coverage than most, if not all, other organizations that they know. He adds that ownership has not addressed overtime pay—staff are often forced to work ten- to 12-hour days without it. Additionally, the union is still waiting to hear about layoff protections and union rights, insurance to prevent the organization’s current financial situation. 

The dissonance for me comes in that Berlin gets to be a unique singular experience for the patrons, but not for the employees. Either Berlin is this progressive bastion that is pushing for inclusivity, equality, and the rights of the people that go there, or it is not.

Chelle Crotinger

Although Howard Brown workers have concluded their two-day strike, their boycott of the three Brown Elephant locations will continue indefinitely. Over at Berlin, the club’s union hopes its now month-long boycott will soon end with a fair contract.

Berlin Workers union says management was surprised by the boycott. The group initially felt optimistic that its employers are nearing a point where they’ll come to the table to bargain in good faith, but after five weeks of boycotting, neither owners have shown up in person, through phone calls, or via Zoom to discuss an equitable agreement. Instead, the owners have accused the union of “killing Berlin,” and being “the reason that Berlin is going to close.”

“People love to talk about how there are no other bars like Berlin [in Chicago]; it is perfectly unique, it is perfectly singular. And in the same breath will then say that industry standards don’t say that someone who works seven hours a week can get health care,” Crotinger says. “The dissonance for me comes in that Berlin gets to be a unique singular experience for the patrons, but not for the employees. Either Berlin is this progressive bastion that is pushing for inclusivity, equality, and the rights of the people that go there, or it is not.” 

HBHWU, meanwhile, wants to reiterate that having gone on strike doesn’t mean it doesn’t care about patients—in fact, it means the exact opposite. 

“We’re very disappointed that leadership made the mistake of deciding to invest in real estate instead of investing in the staff who support the organization,” Spraggins says. “What we’re asking for is not just fair, but it’s affordable for the organization. They would be able to provide what we’re asking for, in perpetuity, without causing issues financially or otherwise for the organization. It’s not a question of whether or not leadership can afford it. It’s a question of whether or not they believe their staff and their patients are important enough to invest in.”