Meet the strippers unionizing for better conditions
“National Labor Relations Board” – Google News
- Strippers at North Hollywood’s Star Garden have been picketing for more than nine weeks.
- They initially walked out over what they say are unsafe conditions and unfair firings.
- Now they’re moving to form a union, which would make them the country’s only unionized strip club.
On a recent Thursday night, a crowd of witches and wizards clustered in front of a dimly lit strip club in the North Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles, chanting, “You shall not pass!”
It was yet another theme night for the strippers of Star Garden, who have been out picketing for more than nine weeks. They walked off the job in March over complaints about management’s handling of safety concerns. In response, they say, management locked them out of the club.
The picketing events, the themes of which have ranged from the Renaissance to OSHA violations, encourage the club’s workers and allies to attend and demand better conditions.
It’s a potent organizing tactic for the group. At least five workers are usually out on the picket line on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and they’re often joined by former customers and union members from other businesses.
“We just needed something to rally us more and to inspire us to show up,” Lilith, a picketing worker, said. (Insider agreed to use performers’ stage names throughout this story.) “If you love a theme, you’re going to show up to the picket, or you’re more likely to, so it’s been very helpful in rallying the troops, keeping us excited, and just keeping it light and fun when we’re doing such grueling work.”
The dancers are now trying to make Star Garden the only unionized strip club in the US, with the help of the labor-rights and advocacy group Strippers United. They’re part of an organizing wave sweeping the nation as workers say no and push back on what they see as unsafe working conditions and unfair treatment.
A stripper “deserves the same good working conditions that you would expect from any other job,” Lilith said.
Demands for a safe workplace
Leading up to the picket, the club fired an organizer and stripper named Reagan, a petition from the dancers says.
Reagan said that after she brought safety concerns about a customer to a bartender, he mocked her and said the customer was going to kill her.
“I was shaking and crying and just felt completely unheard and unsafe, unprotected, and had no idea what I was going to do,” she said.
Reagan said that when she showed up for her next shift, she was fired. There are five unfair-labor-practice complaints open against the club.
The news set the dancers abuzz, and they started talking about organizing. They say that then the club fired another dancer who’d intervened when a customer nonconsensually took a video of their coworker. The strippers said they were later pulled into a meeting and told they weren’t allowed to approach security with safety concerns.
In March, the workers at Star Garden signed a petition calling on management to make major changes to the club, BuzzFeed News reported. Then they walked off the job.
When the workers showed up for their next shifts, they weren’t allowed into the club, said Velveeta, a dancer at Star Garden who said she previously sued the club over allegations of wage issues and employee misclassification; she eventually received a settlement.
The local news outlet KCRW reported on Tuesday that in testimony to the National Labor Relations Board it reviewed, the owners of Star Garden, Stepan “Steve” and Yevgenya “Jenny” Kazaryan, wrote that dancers were asked to leave “after acting aggressively toward customers and staff.”
Velveeta said management tried to have one-on-one meetings with the dancers. “We know that’s a union-busting tactic,” Velveeta said. “We’ve held strong to our request for a group meeting to discuss the safety concerns.”
Star Garden and its lawyer did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment.
Now they’re unionizing
If the strippers succeed in unionizing, Star Garden would become the only unionized strip club in the country. They would be following in the footsteps of the workers at Lusty Lady, a San Francisco strip club that was the first ever to unionize and to be run by workers as a co-op, The New Yorker reported. It closed in 2013 over a rent dispute.
“It was a struggle of ideology, and unfortunately the greedy capitalists won, sadly,” Reagan said. “But now it’s time for round two.”
“I’ve always dreamed of being a union stripper and having a union job as a stripper,” Velveeta said. “I always thought that would be really amazing, but I didn’t know if there would ever be an opportunity for me to be part of something like that.”
For many workers, it’s been a year of such realizations. During the pandemic, Lilith realized her unemployment income was more than the wages at her previous two jobs combined.
“That was a huge wake-up call that employers are completely lowballing their employees with how much they pay them,” she said. “It’s amazing that workers are standing together and are showing their employers how valuable they are — and strip clubs should be no different.”
Reagan said she sees a “throughline” from the conditions of the past two years to the nationwide wave of organizing efforts. When everything shut down because of the pandemic, she and her friends launched online shows. They split the earnings and donated to mutual aid and grassroots organizations. It helped her realize she didn’t need the traditional structure of a club to be successful — they could do it together. The striking workers are even piloting a co-op model for a fundraiser in which they would mutually make decisions and split tips equally.
“We don’t know how to go back to being exploited in this way and having our rights completely ignored, bulldozed, our safety not prioritized,” Reagan said. “We can’t go back to that because we already know what it looks like and how successful we can be when we do it ourselves.”