May 31, 2023

Much of last year, a group of strippers at a California club called Star Garden voiced concerns about safety issues such as handy patrons and a poorly maintained stage — as well as retaliation from management when they spoke out. The complaints led the dancers to picket the club and seek a union vote.

But while support for the union seemed strong during last fall’s election, the results were delayed for months as the two sides litigated over the dancers’ eligibility to join a union. The club, in North Hollywood, has since filed for bankruptcy.

Now, under a series of agreements finalized Monday, Star Garden has dropped its voting challenges and agreed to work with the union, paving the way for the dancers to join the age-old actors’ and stage managers’ association, Actors’ Equity Association. That appears to make them the first strip club dancers to unionize in the United States since the 1990s.

Kate Shindle, the union’s president, said the win could help advance workers’ rights in an industry rife with exploitation and physical danger.

“We felt we could help them,” Ms. Shindle said in an interview during last fall’s mail-in election. “The things we already pay attention to in contract negotiations and enforcement are also things these dancers had to deal with: interaction with the audience, unsafe stages, broken glass, sexual harassment.”

In a statement, Star Garden said it had “reached a resolution of all disputes” with the National Labor Relations Board, the union and workers, and is “committed to negotiating in good faith with Actors’ Equity, a first unique collective bargaining agreement that is fair to all parties.”

Star Garden dancers said they were pushed to join a union because of unsafe working conditions in which drunk patrons were allowed to grope them, and because they were no longer allowed to work at the club after raising concerns. Some said the physical space was often dangerous, including exposed nails and holes on stage and broken glass on the floor.

“I was picked up and carried without security intervention,” said a dancer who goes by the stage name Lilith. Lilith and other dancers asked not to be identified by their legal names for fear of being harassed or stalked.

Another dancer, who goes by the name Velveeta, said the club was endangering dancers by making patrons linger after hours. “Clients will be there to see us pay out, to see how much money we bring,” she said. “They could follow us to our cars and stalk us quite easily.”

The strippers held pickets for the club almost every weekend in the months leading up to the election, proclaiming themes such as “heroes of the twerk class” and “French Revolution” to a growing base of supporters on social media. At one point, guitarist Tom Morello, from Rage Against the Machine, showed up to provide musical entertainment.

The pickets seemed to be having the desired effect: On the Saturday night before the scheduled vote count in November, a crowd of several dozen people gathered outside the club to watch, while no patrons appeared to be coming in or out for more than 90 minutes. to go. The club had been operating for weeks with a small number of replacement workers.

In December, Star Garden filed for bankruptcy.

Strippers and other sex workers have been organizing for years to protest working conditions and push for policy changes, such as mandating panic buttons and other safety measures or decriminalizing and regulating certain activities, such as erotic massages.

Activism appeared to be growing as the economic disruption of the pandemic made sex work a last resort for some workers, while safety concerns mounted.

The racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd also exposed rampant racial discrimination in the industry.

In Portland, Oregon, dozens of strippers began protesting what they said were discriminatory policies at local clubs, including bringing in few people of color, giving them unwanted hours, and refusing to dance to certain types of music, such as rap.

Cat Hollis, the lead organizer of the protests, which came to be known as the Portland Stripper Strike, said several clubs were beginning to comply with some basic workplace regulations, but few if any of them seem to be changing their hiring or contracting policies. have reformed.

The staging at Star Garden began early last year after the club broke off relations with two dancers in retaliation for speaking out over security and privacy issues. One of the dancers, who goes by the stage name Reagan, said she was fired after complaining that a customer was becoming possessive and criticizing the club for not requiring customers to leave before closing.

In March 2022, more than a dozen signed a petition to management describing a workplace “full of belligerent drunk men who push our boundaries and often frighten us” and called for management to take better safety measures, such as shutting down alcohol for the drunk customers . The dancers say they were shut out by management shortly after filing the petition, which also sought the reinstatement of the two ousted dancers.

An attorney representing the club said in the fall that Star Garden had complied with all state and federal labor laws.

In July, the dancers met with Ms. Shindle, the president of Actors’ Equity, and other union officials. The union began investing in organizing non-union workers after years of largely refraining from it, and officials grew excited at the prospect of representing the dancers.

“It feels like something the time has come for, which means the time was probably at least 10 to 15 years ago,” Ms Shindle said.

The workers petitioned for a union vote in August.

The first results of the elections were inconclusive. The National Labor Relations Board allowed about 20 employees who said they were locked out for months to cast ballots, then spent months trying to determine eligibility.

Under the agreement signed Monday, Star Garden will retract its claim that the employees were never employees, but independent businessmen who were ineligible to vote, allowing the vote count to continue in the coming days.

If, as both sides expect, the union wins, the company will try to have the bankruptcy case dismissed and the employees, who are creditors in the case, will not object to the dismissal. The company will rehire eight employees and add the rest to a list of preferred hires. It will also award the dancers back wages and agree to begin negotiations within 30 days of certification of the ballot.

Many clubs have traditionally classified dancers as contractors or tenants for themselves. Critics of this model argue that the clubs’ influence on hours and wages reflects an employment relationship, and that the clubs have illegally denied dancers basic protections of work, such as a minimum wage, overtime and the right to join a union.

In 2019, California passed a law that effectively required many businesses, including strip clubs, to classify workers as employees. But some strippers argue that while employment status basically afforded them more benefits and protections, employers responded by putting dancers out of work or pocketing more of their earnings by claiming a large portion of the earnings they brought in above minimum wage. .

Laws leading to employment status “may be historic and important to those who benefit, but don’t necessarily benefit everyone,” said Ilana Turner, a former dancer and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota whose research focuses on strip club workers. Many performers who may have had a harder time finding work at first — including black, trans, disabled, taller and older dancers — say they had fewer opportunities to work after the law was passed, she added.

Mariah Grant, the former director of research and advocacy for the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm, said unionization could be an important step forward, but added: “I’m concerned about the fact that it is a predominantly white-led effort.”

The dancers have acknowledged the problem, saying they have long been concerned about racial discrimination in the club. In an online post in the fall, the Star Garden dancers said they were “determined to speak out when we witness racism in and around our community.”