Earlier this week, former dancers of the Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in North Hollywood held a rally at the Actor’s Equity headquarters in Los Angeles, filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board. The dancers plan to hold union elections in the near future. If the club recognizes the union, Star Garden will be the only unionized strip club in operation since the Lusty Lady, the first strip club to unionize in the country, closed its doors in 2013.
Over a dozen Star Garden dancers have held a theatrical picket outside the club for almost six months, making extensive use of social media as @stripperstrikenoho on Instagram. The club is still operating with dancers who have been hired from elsewhere. Their picket is colorful and playful, creating a party-like atmosphere with props, costumes and themes such as “Witches and Wizards,” “French Revolution” and “Star Garden’s OSHA Violations” as they attempt to discourage customers from crossing the picket line. The dancers are striking against unsafe working conditions inside the club and management’s refusal to address their concerns.
The dancers report that they were told not to approach security directly with concerns about a customer’s behavior, no matter how egregious. Instead, they were told to inform a manager first, even though managers were often not present on-site at the club. They were told that security would need management’s approval to intervene in the event of a misbehaving customer. And when managers did intervene, it was generally to punish the dancers. One dancer, Sinder, recounts an incident when, as they were performing on stage, a man pulled their panties to one side, shoved cash into their crotch, and slapped them on their exposed vulva. After Sinder walked offstage, they were told to take two days off. They were never scheduled for another shift. Another dancer named Reagan admonished a bartender for joking about her being stalked and murdered by a customer; afterward she was told not to come back. When a customer struck another dancer, Cece, hard on her thigh, she was told not to come back for her next shift. The club’s rules prohibit patrons from taking pictures or videos of dancers while they are performing, but when Selena told a customer to stop recording a dancer while she was performing topless, management told her not to return for her next shift, calling her a “drama queen.” In March, the dancers presented management with a petition demanding that they reinstate Reagan and Selena and institute safety measures at the club. Instead of listening to concerns, management locked them out of the club.
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Racism has long been endemic to the strip club industry, with clubs often refusing to hire Black performers, particularly darker-skinned Black performers. The vast majority of the Star Garden workers are white, something they are acutely aware of in their organizing. Star Garden’s managers have for the most part refused to hire Black dancers. Bree Holt, a Black woman from South Carolina, told Buzzfeed News that when she tried to audition at the club, security guards turned her from the door, and managers refused to let her on stage. “I’ve been shut down by white clubs before,” Holt said. “[The manager] judged me by looking at me.”
The racism that is endemic to the industry was the impetus behind two stripper strikes in recent years: the 2017 strike in New York City led by dancer and organizer Gizelle Marie, and a strike in 2020 in Portland led by Cat Hollis.
Those two previous strikes were instrumental in positioning strippers as workers deserving of workplace protections, and contextualizing sex worker rights within the growing labor movement. However, they did not aim for unionization. Unionizing has been somewhat controversial within the community; many dancers are skeptical of union dues and fearful of retaliation by club owners. Dancers, for the most part, are treated as independent contractors and not employees, exempt from the usual protections and benefits that an employer would provide. In most cases, they’re also required to pay the club for stage time. On slow nights, they can end up handing over almost all the money they made during their shift. In California, Assembly Bill 5 reclassified independent contractors, including strippers, as employees in 2019. However, strip clubs have instituted workarounds to maintain exploitative conditions for dancers and ensure dancers still don’t receive fair pay, like instituting extremely lengthy and onerous “house rules” with penalties for even the most minor infractions. At Star Garden, dancers could choose between being independent contractors or employees. For contractors, the club takes 50 percent of private dance sales; whereas employees would need to meet a $200 sales quota before being allowed to keep 50 percent of their sales — a fairly common practice in the industry. Club owners place the blame for this on labor laws, not on their own greed.
But this unionization effort emerges in the midst of a greater unionizing wave that has taken the country by storm, notably that of Amazon workers and Starbucks workers. (In fact, Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls joined the Star Garden strikers on their picket line.) During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people who lost their jobs, or were otherwise unable to make ends meet on meager wages, took to sex work on platforms like OnlyFans. This has precipitated a reckoning regarding the rights of sex workers, as well as increased recognition of sex workers as workers deserving workplace protections and living wages, as opposed to criminals or victims. The labor movement has also shed the image of union workers as white men in hard hats — the U.S. working class is mostly women and people of color, largely immigrants. An inclusive labor movement that recognizes the different ways in which people are workers is the surest hope for winning rights for the working class.
On the @stripperstrikenoho account, one post addresses a common criticism of the strike, which is often delivered by hostile passersby or by misogynistic customers entering the club: “Why don’t you go work someplace else?”
They answer, “why pass down the same trauma we had to endure to the next ‘set’ of girls. strip club owners WANT us to be quiet, they want us and look at us as disposable and it is in our rights [to] fight for better working conditions/end the trauma. we deserve to be safe no matter what our job is.”