Los Angeles bar dancers may soon become the only unionized stripper group in the United States
The Actors’ Equity Association says the owners of the Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in North Hollywood have withdrawn their opposition and agreed to recognize the strippers’ union.
For 15 months, the club’s dancers demanded safer working conditions, better pay and health insurance, among other benefits. But their organizing drive was stalled by objections and legal challenges from club management.
The union announced this week that management had agreed to a settlement. An official vote count by the National Labor Relations Board has been set for Thursday.
“We hope what we have done to unionize this club has laid the foundation for any other stripper in the country who decides that they also want to have a voice in how their workplace is run,” Lilith, dancer at Star Garden, told The Associated Press. Lilith has asked not to be identified by her legal name in this article for fear of being harassed or stalked. The AP knows its legal name.
After being certified, Star Garden dancers will join Actors’ Equity, a union representing more than 51,000 entertainment industry workers nationwide.
The Star Garden case is not the first time strippers in the United States have sought union recognition. In the late 90s, the dancers of San Francisco’s Lusty Lady organized the Exotic Dancers Union. But this club was closed in 2013 — so if Thursday’s results are certified by the NLRB as expected, the Star Garden dancers will become the only existing unionized strippers in the country.
The dancers’ union battle at the Star Garden dates back to March 2022 – after club security officers ‘repeatedly failed to protect’ dancers from abusive or threatening behavior by customers, and fired those who raised concerns with management, Actors’ Equity said.
“The positive side of Star Garden is that…it’s where the dancers are allowed to express themselves creatively. And all my colleagues looked after each other – it was like a little family from the start,” Lilith said. “So when we started noticing that we all had security issues, it didn’t take long for us to come together and decide we needed to do something about it.”
Lilith recalled a handful of examples that put her and other dancers at risk at work, including a lack of adequate protection from sexual harassment and assault that dancers often face. Star Garden management told dancers they couldn’t go straight to security when they felt unsafe, Lilith said – noting they were instructed to go to management instead , who would decide “whether it was a serious enough case for security to intervene”.
Customers were also allowed to stay in the bar after hours, which put the dancers at risk, as customers could see them dressed “out of our stripper personas” and identify the cars they were driving when ‘they were going home,’ she said. According to Lilith, a dancer was fired for raising concerns about this to management. Another dancer was fired for intervening when she noticed a client filming a colleague on stage without her consent, she added.
After the two colleagues were fired, the Star Garden dancers banned together in an effort to get their jobs back. But after handing a safety petition to their bosses, they were locked out, Lilith said – so they started picketing outside the club. They then announced their affiliation with Actors’ Equity, which applied for NLRB Guild Election on behalf of the band.
According to the union, the NLRB organized the election by mail and scheduled a vote count in November. But those results were suspended due to legal challenges from the Star Garden, which disputed the eligibility of some voters. The club has also filed for bankruptcy.
As part of Tuesday’s settlement, Star Garden agreed to dismiss the bankruptcy filing and reopen the club shortly thereafter, lawyers representing Star Garden management said in a statement.
“Star Garden has decided to settle because it has always been a fair and just employer, which respects the rights of its employees,” said lawyers Josiah R. Jenkins and An Nguyen Ruda, adding that the club “is undertakes to negotiate in good and due form”. Trust Actor’s Equity, a one-of-a-kind collective bargaining agreement that is fair to all parties.
Mori Rubin, who endorsed the settlement as regional director for NLRB Region 31, said she admired “the dancers who had the courage to protest their unsafe working conditions” and was “very satisfied” with the settlement.
Lilith and other dancers said they were looking forward to working out a union contract and getting back to work.
“I feel really optimistic about my return,” Lilith said. “It will definitely be surreal to be back on this specific stage, but I know our community will rally around us…. And hopefully we can show the country just how much a union strip club can succeed.