‘Strippers are standing up’: Los Angeles dancers move to unionize with actors group

Dancers at a Los Angeles strip club have filed to unionize with Actors’ Equity Association, a move that would make them the first group of strippers to join the national union that represents theater actors.

Performers at Star Garden in North Hollywood submitted a petition on Wednesday with the National Labor Relations Board seeking a union election. The initiative comes after months of staging protests outside the venue raising concerns about workplace safety and labor rights. Actors’ Equity – which represents Broadway actors, stage managers, Disney World performers and other regional theater actors – said it was supporting the effort and that if it is successful, the Star Garden workers would become the only strippers in the US represented by a union.

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“We like what we do,” said Velveeta, a Star Garden dancer who goes by her stage name, in a statement. “We would like our jobs even more if we had basic worker protections. We’re like so many other workers who have learned that it’s not a choice between suffering abuse or quitting. With a union, together, we can make needed improvements to our workplace.”

The performers first launched the unionization campaign in March in response to the club security guards’ repeated failures to protect the dancers from abuse and threats, Actors Equity said in a statement. In a petition to management that month, 15 out of 23 dancers called for workplace safety improvements, including enforcing policies barring customers from filming them and lingering after the club closes for the night, and urging the bar to stop serving customers who become belligerent, the LA Times reported.

After the dancers submitted that petition, most were barred from returning to work the next day, according to the paper, which interviewed eight dancers who said they were wrongfully terminated and reviewed signed affidavits submitted to the NLRB alleging that managers failed to protect them from unwanted touching. The workers have regularly picketed outside the establishment, telling arriving customers about their struggle for better working conditions and discouraging them from patronizing the establishment.

An attorney for the club did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday and club management could not immediately be reached.

The Actors’ Equity Association president, Kate Shindle, said in a statement that the dancers have “reported consistent compensation issues – including significant wage theft – along with health and safety risks and violations”, adding, “They want health insurance and other benefits, like workers’ compensation. They need protection from sexual harassment, discrimination and unjust terminations.”

Shindle said while some aspects of the Star Garden strippers’ jobs were unique, they have much in common with other dancers represented by the union: “We applaud their efforts to seize their collective power and unionize, like so many others across the country who are fed up with toxic workplaces. When they approached us for support, we did what unions should do: we said yes.”

I hope this will help all other parts of the sex industry see that there is a benefit to being collectivized and to laying out specific job standards

Maxine Doogan

The move comes amid a wave of labor organizing and unionization efforts across the US, including by fast-food workers, Starbucks employees, flight attendants and Amazon workers.

Although the Star Garden workers would be the first strippers in Actors’ Equity’s 109-year history, the union noted that there was a history of labor activism among club dancers. In San Francisco, strippers at the Lusty Lady organized the Exotic Dancers Union in 1996 and were affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. That establishment closed in 2013.

After the filing this week, which the union said was backed by a majority of Star Garden dancers, the NLRB will schedule an election for roughly 30 performers eligible to vote. If a majority of them support joining Actors’ Equity, the union will begin negotiating its first contract. The effort could be complicated by the fact that some of the strippers have not worked at the venue since March, which means the NLRB may have to determine they were wrongfully terminated before they can vote, the LA Times reported.

We’re no longer going to be discriminated against, oppressed, coerced, assaulted, or robbed on the shop floor

Antonia Crane

Maxine Doogan, a longtime California sex worker rights advocate, said the Star Garden effort was a significant moment: “I hope this will help all other parts of the sex industry see that there is a benefit to being collectivized and to laying out specific job standards.”

Doogan, who organizes with the with the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project, noted that strippers have long faced challenges, including managers siding with violent customers or strippers having to pay high fees to perform at a club. “This is about having their work recognized as employees and to be issued all of those protections that contracted labor doesn’t get. It’s about your right to be able to negotiate for your own workplace safety.”

Antonia Crane, founder of Strippers United, a group that has worked with the Star Garden strippers, said the union petition sent a powerful message. “We’re no longer going to be discriminated against, oppressed, coerced, assaulted, or robbed on the shop floor. Strippers are standing up and resisting.”

She said she has been waiting years for this kind of victory: “Strippers sit at the crossroads of several kinds of oppression – complete powerlessness in the workplace and facing a culture of intimidation, misogyny, whorephobia, racism … This is a really important moment for labor and for feminism.”