Herdie Sykes, Barber Division, Teamsters Local 777
Chicago Barbers Set Up Shop With Teamsters Local 777
Veteran Barber Herdie Sykes Recounts Six Decades in the Business

In 2005, a few hundred barbers in Chicago joined Teamsters Local 777. Yes, barbers.

“When the Teamsters say we represent everyone from airline pilots to zookeepers, we’re not kidding,” said John T. Coli, President of Teamsters Joint Council 25. “No matter where you work, no matter what you do, if you want a better way of life and you want the protections of a strong contract, calling the Teamsters should be the first thing you do.”

Since 2005, organizing even more barbers in Chicago has been a tall order. A big reason is the absence of regulation by the city and a lack of enforcement by the state of shop conditions and industry standards. Part of the reason has also been getting the word out about the Teamster Power that can exist for working barbers.

Herdie Sykes, for one, wants to do the latter. Herdie is 83. He became a barber in 1953. In the time since, he’s seen it all—from the construction of Eisenhower’s expressways in the 50s to the opening of Teamster City in the 70s to what he calls the unfortunate fad of long-haired hippies. Today, he remains a member of Local 777, serving as a consultant to the local’s barber division. He still staunchly believes in the power of organized labor.

Was your father or anyone else in your family a barber before you?
No one. Well, actually, I had an uncle who was a barber, but I didn’t know it when I was younger. I was introduced to the barber profession by a shop owner named Ernest Lewis.  I was interested in going to school to become an electrical engineer and he suggested to me I needed a trade to help me out day to day. He said if I could learn a trade, I’d always be able to make some money. That was the beginning of it.

Did you study to be a barber?
Oh yes. I trained to be a barber for 1,872 hours over nine months and I didn’t miss a day. I graduated from barber school on November 18, 1953. I worked as an apprentice for two and a half years on Roosevelt Road. Then I decided to open my own shop in 1956.

So you opened your own place pretty quick.
I didn’t miss a turn. The minute after I bought that shop, I concluded that if I could earn $175 a week, I could operate quite comfortably. But I did much better than that.

Do you remember how much it cost to buy that shop back then?
Five hundred dollars. It was located at 4505 Wentworth Avenue. A short while later, I moved and leased another store at 69th Street and Stony Island. I bought new equipment and things of that sort. I was very successful there.

You became a business agent for Chicago Barbers Union Local 939 in 1965. Why?
Because it was organized. I never wanted to be a part of any business that wasn’t organized. I always thought that professional people were organized. Professionals have organized protection and contracts of their own. Even lawyers and doctors are organized with the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association. Those are strong organizations. So I thought, how can a laborer or service worker not be organized as well? That’s the way I’ve always felt. How can a regular workingman think he can negotiate his own contract or even get one without the protection of a union?

Did being members of a union offer barbers more benefits?
Oh yes. Not only that, the union brought our income level up. When I started [in 1956], barbers were earning about $1 per haircut. But once we joined the union, we were able to increase the amount of money we received from each service, from $1 to $2 per cut.

How important was it for barbers to join the Teamsters?
It was tremendously important. And it’s been a tremendous relationship. I think when the barbers joined the Teamsters, we brought something new to the union, but we also wanted to bring something of our own to the table. A couple hundred barbers joined the Teamsters at that time. I feel the Teamsters have a proud history as a strong labor union. The Teamsters at large really care about their members. Just look at the contracts that they negotiate. As barbers, we want to do excellent work for our members in Local 777.

What’s the biggest challenge today in organizing new barbers into the union?
The most trouble that we face is the fact that there’s no more regulation in the industry. There’s no regulation from the City or the State. There are a lot of unlicensed barbers out there. And shop conditions and standards continue to decline in some areas. At one time, Chicago used to have inspectors who checked in on barbers, who monitored businesses and could act as sanitation workers in the industry. They knew the rules.

Have regulations in the barber industry gone away?
No. The regulations are still there. There just aren’t enough inspectors to uphold them. And some of the areas where barbershops exist today in the city are dangerous areas and the inspectors won’t even go there to regulate them.

Do you remember any specific low points in your own career as a barber?
I remember when long hair came in. That became a fad. It really rocked the barber world. The men weren’t getting haircuts. They called it a natural style. But it was a rough style.

What about high points?
Business was good most of the time. I’ll give you an example. In 1961, I got a new house. I had a new house built that I paid $23,000 for. And I was successful because I took care of business. If a man was sitting in my chair and I was performing a service for him, he deserved my full attention and respect. My success in this business was based on the fact that if you walked into my shop, I greeted you. I said, ‘Good afternoon, Mr. Jones. Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable.’

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