Second City Has Been a Comedy Mecca for Decades. Now Its Workers Are Voting to Form a Union.

Yana Kunichoff November 15, 2017

Workers at Second City in Chicago held a press conference ahead of a vote to unionize.

The past decade at Chicago’s his­toric Sec­ond City com­e­dy club has been a good one for the busi­ness. Along with its range of com­e­dy shows, the com­pa­ny has opened a film school ded­i­cat­ed to com­e­dy, pro­duced a num­ber of high-pro­file film and tele­vi­sion projects, and set up a cor­po­rate arm that uses com­e­dy tech­niques in job train­ing across the coun­try. In a Crain’s Chica­go Busi­ness arti­cle last year, CEO Andrew Alexan­der esti­mat­ed that the company’s rev­enue has grown from $30 mil­lion in 2012 to $55 mil­lion in 2016, an increase of 83 percent.

The expe­ri­ence for some of the company’s staff, how­ev­er, has been far less rosy. 

Kitchen, wait staff and bar­tenders say their wages have been frozen since Feb­ru­ary 26, and many cur­rent­ly make lit­tle more than the city’s min­i­mum wage of $11 an hour. When main­te­nance work­ers were hit with lay­offs ear­ly this year, host­ing and bar staff were hand­ed the respon­si­bil­i­ty to clean up the club’s the­aters, with­out any increase in pay­ment for their new duties.

And, while part-time employ­ees had pre­vi­ous­ly been pro­vid­ed a week­ly stipend for health care through a third-par­ty ser­vice, man­age­ment rescind­ed that fund­ing in May, blam­ing new rules gov­ern­ing health care through the Afford­able Care Act.

These are among the rea­sons that Sec­ond City servers, kitchen and bar staff are hold­ing a union elec­tion this Fri­day to deter­mine whether to join the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE). The UE has a long tra­di­tion as a rad­i­cal union, rep­re­sent­ing work­ers from a vari­ety of pre­car­i­ous indus­tries. In 2008, the UE sup­port­ed fac­to­ry work­ers in Chica­go who had been laid off by the Repub­lic Win­dows & Doors com­pa­ny as they fought to win dam­ages and open their own coop­er­a­tive­ly-oper­at­ed busi­ness, New Era Windows. 

The union dri­ve at Sec­ond City is a step towards col­lec­tive action in an indus­try that is full of laughs but low on wage rates, reg­u­lar hours and a real voice in the workplace.

Gina Har­ri­son, a serv­er at Sec­ond City, says work­ers are invest­ed in the suc­cess of the com­pa­ny, but also want to see their own needs and issues in the work­place addressed. We want to hear our employ­er and we want to be heard by them, sim­ply and fair­ly,” Har­ri­son said at a press con­fer­ence held last Fri­day on the steps of the Sec­ond City build­ing in Chicago’s Old Town neigh­bor­hood. Our goal is a col­lec­tive voice on the job.”

This demand for a stronger voice in the work­place sits at the core of union organizer’s demands, along with a $15 hourly wage that would sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase the pay of min­i­mum wage work­ers and end a year-long wage freeze.

Sec­ond City car­ries cache as the club where many of America’s most beloved come­di­ans got their start, includ­ing Bill Mur­ray, Stephen Col­bert, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Amy Sedaris and Tina Fey. Tick­ets for week­end shows, start­ing at $36 a pop, reg­u­lar­ly sell out, and Sec­ond City remains one of the most pres­ti­gious com­e­dy clubs in the country.

The actors who per­form at Sec­ond City are rep­re­sent­ed by the Actors’ Equi­ty union and recent­ly signed a let­ter of sup­port for the staff union­iza­tion effort, say staff union orga­niz­ers. Management’s response to the staff union dri­ve, how­ev­er, has been less wel­com­ing. Orga­niz­ers say that since they announced the union cam­paign, employ­ees have been forced to attend mul­ti­ple cap­tive audi­ence meet­ings, which sup­port­ers claim are being used to spread mis­in­for­ma­tion about the role of the union.

In a state­ment to In These Times, Sec­ond City CEO Alexan­der writes: 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.”

The labor movement’s his­to­ry in com­e­dy clubs is patchy, but there have been a num­ber of efforts to orga­nize. The Com­e­dy Store strike of 1979, saw sev­er­al late-night tele­vi­sion hosts, includ­ing David Let­ter­man and Jay Leno, walk off the job to protest one of Los Ange­les’ most famous com­e­dy clubs ask­ing young writ­ers to per­form for free while head­lin­ers were paid hand­some­ly. Strik­ing per­form­ers ulti­mate­ly won pay­ment for many young writ­ers, though some comics were black­list­ed. And in 2004, per­form­ers formed the New York Come­di­ans Coali­tion to demand that clubs across the city raise their per-set pay rates, and won.

UE, the union orga­niz­ing the Sec­ond City work­ers, has recent­ly helped run sev­er­al suc­cess­ful union­iza­tion cam­paigns with ser­vice employ­ees whose jobs are pre­car­i­ous and with­out ben­e­fits, includ­ing grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers in Iowa and movie the­ater con­ces­sion work­ers in New England.

Ahead of the Fri­day union vote, staff at Sec­ond City say they would like to see a cul­ture change where man­age­ment sees the club’s employ­ees as an asset rather than a cost. When Sec­ond City says it is afraid that there is some third par­ty enti­ty com­ing in, they are afraid of us,” says Ryan Andrews, a bar­tender and mem­ber of the orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee. We are the union, we are the mem­bers, we are the workers.” 

Yana Kuni­choff is a Chica­go-based inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and doc­u­men­tary pro­duc­er. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Pacif­ic Stan­dard and the Chica­go Read­er, among oth­ers. She can be reached at yanaku­ni­choff at gmail​.com.
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