Dancers at Los Angeles club become US’s only unionized strippers

After months of late-night picketing in North Hollywood, the dancers of the Star Garden Topless Dive Bar have become the only unionized strippers in the US.

Their victory was finalized with a unanimous vote by 17 dancers in favor of unionization on Thursday morning , and marks the first time that the Actors Equity association, a century-old union for stage actors, singers and dancers, will represent strip club workers, the union said.

The strippers’ campaign featured colorful, costumed protests, and attracted high-profile support, with the Amazon Union president, Chris Smalls, and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine both showing up in solidarity.

For Charlie, a 23-year-old Star Garden dancer, spending eight months of prime weekend nights last year on a picket line rather than working was a financial challenge, but one that proved worth it.

“The sacrifices we made were definitely sacrifices, but it was for something bigger than us,” she said. The dancers were fighting for “a future where unionization exists for strippers who want it. That’s bigger than struggling to pay rent.”

The campaign, which started in March 2022, was galvanized by what dancers said were unsafe working conditions, and what they described as retaliatory firings of dancers who tried to address customers’ dangerous behavior themselves.

Although Actors’ Equity, which represents more than 50,000 workers, has not organized strip club employees in the past, the union said, the strippers had similar concerns to other performers, from wage theft to post-show security.

“Strippers are live entertainers. While some elements of their job are unique, they are essentially performance artists, and have a lot in common with other Equity members who dance for a living,” Kate Shindle, the union president, said in a statement.

Shindle called the Star Garden dancers “absolute warriors throughout this long process”.

As well as concerns about sexual harassment and dancer safety, the union campaign was driven by labor concerns that strippers share with other workers, such as workplace injuries that affect dancers in their highly physical work, and that make health insurance essential.

“Just walking around in six- to eight-inch heels every night is a lot of wear and tear on your body,” Charlie, the Star Gardens dancer, said.

Strippers also need mental health support, she added, since many patrons want someone willing to listen to their struggles and show empathy, making the job in many ways similar to the emotional labor of being a therapist or a social worker.

“I would say most of my social work experience has been in my underwear,” Charlie said.

She said the union win built on decades of campaigns by sex workers advocating for safe working conditions, and had crucial support from the advocacy group Strippers United.

After more than a year of legal battles, which included the club filing for bankruptcy, the union and the Star Garden owners announced a settlement on Tuesday, which will allow the dancers to proceed with a union vote, and the club to reopen.

“Star Garden is committed to negotiating in good faith with Actor’s Equity a first of its kind collective bargaining agreement which is fair to all parties,” said An Ruda, an attorney for Star Garden, in a statement. “Star Garden decided to settle, as it has always been a fair and equal opportunity employer, that respects the rights of its employees.”

The North Hollywood dancers said they hoped their victory would galvanize new union efforts at other US strip clubs.

“This is not just a win for the dancers at this club, but the entire strip club industry,” said Lilith, a Star Garden dancer, in a statement.

Star Garden’s vote comes a decade after the 2013 closure of the Lusty Lady, a worker-owned club in San Francisco, which unionized with the Service Employees International Union in 1997. At that time, it was the only unionized strip club in the US.

While the Lusty Lady had “a good run”, the California club’s unionization ultimately did not “spark organizing all over the country”, as workers had hoped it would, said Kristina Zinnen, a former Lusty Lady dancer who went on to become a San Francisco labor lawyer.

Over the years, Zinnen said, she had talked to at least 10 groups of strippers trying to organize their workplaces, but none of those campaigns succeeded. One of the major hurdles to organizing strippers has been finding the right union to back them, Zinnen said.

The new involvement of the powerful and well-resourced Actors Equity was “very significant”, and might signal a broader interest in organizing other clubs.

The Star Garden dancers made a strategic effort to make their picketing entertaining to demonstrate to the club owners, and customers, that “we are the club – without us, the business doesn’t exist,” Charlie said.

Protesting on a North Hollywood street corner until 1am or 2am took stamina, and sometimes came with safety concerns, Charlie said. But the dancers focused on a charm offensive, she said, aiming to “be flirty and strippery” while pushing the labor movement.

The dancers asked patrons to come back another time, visit a different club, or party with them on the picket line rather than going inside, she said.

Each night the picket had a different theme, with costumes and props, from witches to pageant night to dad night (they brought a grill), to big cats. One night, the theme was the environmental and safety violations they were fighting, and dancers dressed up as “broken glass” and “a hole in the stage”.

The strippers also built a following on social media, and used supporters’ contributions to make the 15-month protest possible, though most dancers also worked other jobs to pay rent, Charlie said. (She worked at a grocery store, among other gigs.)

While it could be “disheartening” when longtime patrons chose to cross the picket line, Charlie said, “the majority of our customers were amazing”, with some actively supporting the labor movement, and others simply deciding to listen to dancers’ advice to come back another time.

Article originally appeared in The Guardian
Author – Lois Beckett
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