The Second City Union’s Long Fight for a Contract

Unionized teachers at the famous improv-comedy institution the Second City went two years without a contract — until they threatened a strike and won an agreement this past January. We talked to three Second City faculty about the long contract fight.

The Second City theater in Chicago, photographed on Thursday, October 29, 2020. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Interview by
Brynn Schaal

The Association of International Comedy Educators (AICE) is the union representing faculty, music directors, and facilitators at the Second City, the famous improvisational-comedy enterprise, in Chicago, Toronto, and New York City. In January 2022, AICE members in all three cities entered into collective bargaining negotiations with the Second City.

In December 2023, Second City management in Chicago submitted a final bargaining offer that was vetoed by AICE membership; in January, the union announced that it would be going on strike starting January 16. After a thirteen-hour negotiating session following the strike threat, the bargaining team finally approved a first contract. On January 20, AICE members in Chicago overwhelmingly voted to ratify the three-year collective bargaining agreement.

For Jacobin, Brynn Schaal spoke with AICE Chicago bargaining team members Bina Martin, Piero Procaccini, and Edmund O’Brien about Second City employees’ fight for a first contract and what they won.

Brynn Schaal

What were the reasons for unionizing at the Second City?

Bina Martin

I wasn’t involved from the very beginning; I joined about six months in. It was a perfect storm, particularly in 2020, when the whole world was on fire in so many different ways.

I think a fellow teacher put it best — we love what we do, but it is not a good job. There were a lot of things: fluctuating pay, some people were getting paid one rate and [other people] seemingly another, rules changing, regimes changing. For most of us, it was a part-time job where we were expected to have full-time availability but were only given part-time hours.

Like in so many fields, not just the arts, this idea that we’re lucky to do what we do is internalized and really preyed upon by our leadership. But for most of us too, it was a day job, and we loved being in the building.

The minute we announced we were unionizing was also the day Second City was sold to ZMC, a private equity firm, and it lit a fire. There were a lot of problems with the old regime, but we also knew that we could communicate with them and they cared about us. Sometimes that was abused — but with this new regime, if we didn’t have a contract, we had nothing. There was no history or legacy or connection between us and this new firm. This made it all the more apparent that we needed to take things into our own hands.

Brynn Schaal

What has management’s response to the union been?

Piero Procaccini

I feel like there have been a variety of different responses throughout. Sometimes it feels very collaborative; [other times] it feels very combative.

It hasn’t helped that while we’ve been negotiating, the people in the room have changed several times. There has been a sense of making some progress with one group of people — and when those people are gone, maybe we’re not quite starting from square one, but certainly we’re taking several steps back. We have to reestablish relationships and goals.

I certainly think now that we have the contract, management is happy to work with us. Do I believe that they were always happy with us? No, probably not.

Bina Martin

We’re all relieved that it’s over. There was this push-and-pull of, “We need to run a business, we’re trying to keep the place open, we’re trying to do all of these things — and [the union] is getting in the way of that.”

We’re like, “That’s a tactic.” I think a lot of the resistance [from management] has been [rooted in] a very real struggle theaters are [experiencing] right now, and I definitely sympathize with that. But it’s also been used to act like the very thing that has been helping them to stay open is getting in the way.

Brynn Schaal

What has the reaction been from Second City students and performers?

Piero Procaccini

[The reaction] has been enormously positive. Bina says this a lot: Nobody forms a union because they do not care about the work they’re doing. You form a union because you care so much about what you’re doing, and you want to make sure you can keep doing it [under fair conditions].

I feel like that has been very much supported and appreciated by everyone who is in a similar space with us, whether that’s the performers or the students or other instructors at neighboring institutions. We’ve gotten an enormous amount of support from the community at large.

Brynn Schaal

AICE had planned to go on strike in January; after a thirteen-hour contract negotiation, plans for a strike were canceled. What were the negotiations like?

Piero Procaccini

We have been [organizing] for a long time. In December, we had a few outstanding issues that we still hadn’t resolved, and while it had already been a long time, we were still committed to finding common ground and figuring out the appropriate places to compromise.

That month, management gave us what is best described as the final offer, which usually means they are done negotiating. So they put that offer in front of us, and ultimately we decided to let membership vote on that offer. It did not pass — the offer was rejected by a majority of the members. I believe the numbers were somewhere around 75 percent of members [voting], and it was rejected by over 85 percent [of voters].

I think the results of the vote sent a message to management that membership was not satisfied with what it offered. We needed to say to them, “We need you to take us seriously.” And if the only way to do that is the threat of a strike, then we have no choice but to make plans for a strike.

[Management] offered us [a bargaining] date later in the month — I think it was at the end of January or early February — but we did not feel that that was appropriate, especially after their final offer. In December, we had asked them to come back [and negotiate] in early January. They said they would come back to the table late January, and we said if we have to wait that long, we’re going to go on strike.

With the strike date announced, [management] made time in their schedule for [negotiations] to try to iron out the details. It took all day; speaking to that experience, it was a bit of a marathon.

One thing I’ve learned in this process is that bargaining is a lot of hurry up and wait. There are long stretches of sitting and waiting for the other side to respond, and then taking time to deliberate and give a response. Before you know it, the sun has risen and set, and you’re burning the midnight oil trying to get to [an agreement].

I think we were all trying to avoid a strike. When we strike, that is an enormous burden on our members, so we would rather get to a deal without a strike. I’m personally happy that even though it took that amount of time, we did manage to get across the finish line at the end of the day.

Edmund O’Brien

I wasn’t on in the beginning of the process. I didn’t come on until maybe June, and I was coming on more as an observer. I think [the bargaining committee’s] frustrations at that earlier stage were that things seemed to be getting slow-walked.

Early on, there was a wish on our part that we could just get in the room for a week, and that would maybe give us all deadlines to meet. Second City management didn’t want to do that, didn’t have the time to do that, or didn’t think we were important enough to schedule such time.

What happened on that final day was what I imagined would have happened in the first place, which was that we were going to figure this out in real time. While that real time definitely was long and exhausting, I think it allowed for us to make some time dashes and get a little bit more human contact and a relationship to make progress. Whereas earlier on in the process, their lawyer taking the lead perhaps prevented progress in the room. Management would have language like, “Hey, let’s get this going,” but then things would drag out with infrequent meetings and lack of actual movement.

I don’t know whether it took their lawyer not spearheading their discussions, or if it was the thought that if we don’t decide things today or maybe in the next few days, there’s going to be a strike. Maybe management needed to finally believe that it wasn’t talk — that [a strike] was going to happen.

Brynn Schaal

What did AICE win in the negotiations?

Piero Procaccini

Under AICE’s umbrella is anyone who is an educator for Second City at the moment — the faculty who teach in the training center, musical directors, and facilitators who teach in the corporate space for Second City, who do workshops for companies.

One of the things that was challenging in this negotiation, in a good way, is that each of these groups had different needs. The vast majority of individuals don’t get enough work for Second City to make it a full-time job. Another important element for us, whether it was for faculty or facilitators, was enshrining in the contract the clear expectation that people are allowed to take outside work — that people are allowed to work at other institutions.

We also made some wins in the intellectual property space: If Second City commissions us and pays us for our work, they would then own that intellectual property. But if they do not commission and pay us for the work, it is not owned by them. We felt that was a big win because as teachers, you’re often creating things on the fly that you then use for other classes, or that you want to be able to access and make sure it’s not owned by someone else.

From the facilitation standpoint, we are happy with the rate increases that we got. For teachers, typically classes happen at the Second City, so those conditions are pretty uniform; you kind of know what you’re getting. You’re in the same space, more or less, for the term.

Facilitators are on the road a lot. We’re at companies, either in town or out of town, so there are a lot of variables to that. We’re happy with a lot of the wins that we got in terms of setting standards for how we travel, how we’re housed when we’re on the road, what we get reimbursed for, and defining terms like “span of day” so that we have a clear limit to what can be asked before the rate increases.

Edmund O’Brien

I would say there were compromises. I often say they were the wins that could be won.

One of our issues was the rate that we were paid hourly had been frozen for six years. Based on comparisons with what other teachers have been paid at other institutions — whether they be theater institutions or arts organizations — we were well below the going rate. We felt that, for the last fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years, perhaps we hadn’t done a very good job of negotiating for ourselves individually.

So when we organized collectively and began to discuss what we were all making and all the other jobs that we were doing, we felt that there was a big gulf. In the end, we got a step closer to where we wanted to be on our hourly rate.

The Second City said they felt that we deserved more, but that currently, given the structure of tuition and costs elsewhere, they were not going to be able to make another big incremental jump. The Second City offered a way to connect bonus increases to increases in student enrollment that they would try to get back to pre-pandemic numbers. Already Toronto had begun to see those sorts of rebounds, which perhaps we weren’t in Chicago because students were seeing there was a possible strike on the horizon. So that was one big victory.

We were also able to get paid extra prep time for classes that involve shows, so that was a step in the right direction toward someday getting paid prep time for regular classes.

There were other things beyond our pay rate in what we wanted as a union, since we were representing so many people at the bargaining table and beyond. Whether they are members of the union or members of the bargaining unit, [workers] will pay fees [to the union] similar to dues. That was something that was important to us as a new union — we wanted to continue to grow.

Certain things that Second City said “never” to, suddenly they were agreeing to. If the private equity firm should sell Second City, there were guarantees that this contract would continue through that sale. There were other things that we had gotten tentative agreements to early on in the process that were big wins, having to do with DEI commitments and making it clearer how classes are distributed while respecting seniority.

Brynn Schaal

In the last few years, there has been a lot of discussion regarding “doing what you love” and being paid a living wage. What do you say in response to people who might scoff at the idea of Second City workers unionizing?

Piero Procaccini

I think it’s a real joy to be able to work in a field that you love, but that does not mean that it is not a valid field that should be treated as such. I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. The idea of pursuing your passion and also being compensated appropriately for valuable work that you bring to the world is important.

Sometimes the arts in particular are treated in that way — whether it’s performance or comedy or even fine arts or music. The reality is that most of the people who work in this space have spent years of their lives getting good in these fields and deserve the conditions and compensation that they are getting.

When you’re teaching comedy, you’re helping people become better at something that they love too. I’ll also add, we don’t just teach comedy; we’re teaching fundamental skills that make people better at communicating, working in teams, and adapting to change. Those are tangible skills that improve the workplaces and the lives of the people involved in them and should be compensated appropriately.

Edmund O’Brien

Some people are working with students who are taking improv for anxiety, so they’re bringing expertise outside of the world of comedy to those classes. [When] working with youth and teens, you’re constantly reading the room.

When AICE wanted to remind management why students loved the Second City and kept coming back, we had our own teacher-appreciation week where we set up these big poster boards for students as they were coming and going [out of the building] to give shout-outs to different teachers. As a teacher, it was great to be able to read all the things that students were saying about fellow faculty.

There are definitely students who come to the building because it’s Second City or [they] want to be like some famous person, but that’s not what keeps them coming back. We teach yearlong classes, and most of my students are in different yearlong programs. The reason they come back is because of who is in the classroom — not only their peers, but there is an atmosphere that the teachers help create. There is safety to take positive risks.

We’re not changing the way our culture looks at underpaying teachers in every level of education. But we are a for-profit space at the Second City, and we need to remind management that they have to increase the percentage of tuition that is [given] to the experts in the room.

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Bina Martin has been a faculty member at the Second City Training Center since 2001.

Piero Procaccini has been teaching improv and sketch comedy for over a decade.

Edmund O’Brien has taught adults, teens, and youth in the improv, writing, music, conservatory, and TV programs at the Second City.

Brynn Schaal is a writer living in Chicago. She recently wrote and produced a sketch show, Lakeview Girls, that premiered at the Annoyance Theatre in November 2023.

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