LA Is Home to the Country’s Only Unionized Strippers — Here’s How They Did It

Star Garden dancers won the battle for union recognition after a 15-month organizing effort

May 26, 2023 7:18 am
Star Garden dancers at the NLRB vote count in November with AEA President Kate Shindle behind them.
Star Garden dancers at the NLRB vote count in November with AEA President Kate Shindle behind them.
Courtney Kocak

It wasn’t fast or easy — and little of the attending  bureaucracy was sexy — but after a 15-month-long battle for union recognition, the dancers at Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in North Hollywood, California, have finally made it rain workers’ rights, following a settlement with the club last week.

“If you have been following our journey, then you know this has been a long, exhausting fight, which is why this victory is so sweet,” says Reagan, one of the Star Garden dancers.

The process began in March 2022, when strippers at Star Garden started organizing around the issues of safety and security in the workplace.

“The security guard on my first shift was working security and DJing,” says Velveeta, a dancer who had just returned to the club last spring. “They were real short staffed, obviously because they’re trying to cut corners and reduce cost or whatever. But it was unacceptable to me — like, how can the DJ be doing those two jobs, especially security?”

Instead of addressing these concerns, dancers who brought them to Star Garden’s management were fired — the strippers say illegally — which became another point of contention, as remaining dancers walked out and picketed outside the strip club. There was some infrastructure already in place to support them: Strippers in metro Los Angeles have become increasingly interested in unionization over the past four years, especially amid debates over AB5, a California worker classification law that went into effect on January 1, 2020. Strippers United, a stripper-led 501(c)3 organization that advocates for strippers’ rights, has been at the forefront of this movement. 

“They were very instrumental in us beginning our journey,” says Lilith, another Star Garden dancer. “We met with [Strippers United] early on, when we were deciding how to deal with the safety issues we were facing. This whole thing would not have happened without them.”

Picketing at Star Garden continued every week from March through November, outside the club’s location on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, where strippers proved they know how to put on a show with well-attended, often themed protests. In addition to gaining support from their former patrons at the club, dancers garnered celebrity backing from people like Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, who came out to play some union songs in November. Morello regaled the crowd while he played his guitar, sharing that his single mom was a public high school teacher for 30 years in Illinois: “And while we were never rich, we always had enough clothes on our backs, food on our tables, and guitars and amps in our basements because my mom was a union high school teacher.”

Morello went on to prophesize that “one of the most important steps in the history of labor movements in this country will be made on the sidewalks of North Hollywood tonight.” 

And while that may be true, it certainly wasn’t instant gratification. 

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Last August, five months into their effort, the strippers announced they had affiliated with Actors’ Equity Association, a century-old national labor union affiliated with the AFL-CIO labor federation representing more than 51,000 actors and stage managers in live entertainment. Actor’s Equity represents members on Broadway, Walt Disney World stages, prominent regional theaters across the country — and now at a topless club in North Hollywood.

Shortly after joining forces, Actors’ Equity filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the dancers. The labor board then conducted an election by mail this past fall. A vote count was held in November, but the results were put on hold by the NLRB due to employer objections and legal filings. Hearings on the NLRB vote count objections were scheduled to start Monday, May 15 — but instead, the owners of Star Garden were ready to settle. The wait was finally over for Star Garden’s union-seeking strippers. The club will also reopen for business and bring back the dancers who were dismissed last year. 

The final NLRB vote count was announced on Thursday, May 18, and it was unanimous, 17-0, in favor of union representation by Actors’ Equity Association. The owners of Star Garden will now meet with Actors’ Equity Association across the bargaining table within 30 days. And this might be just the beginning for the Star Garden strippers, who are now considering starting a co-op together; they’ve even been fundraising and receiving guidance from the L.A. Co-op Lab. 

people striking with Tom Morello outside of strip club.
Tom Morello rages against the machine in support of Star Garden strippers.
Courtney Kocak

“It’s an incredible victory. Seventeen people who refused to accept an unsafe workplace have now created precedent for an entire industry,” says Actors’ Equity Association President Kate Shindle. “I’m not sure that the enormity of what these workers have accomplished has entirely sunk in yet. If the Star Garden strippers could do it, despite the massive and unique barriers to organizing within their industry, so can everybody.”

While this historic development makes the Star Garden strippers the only unionized strippers in the U.S. at the moment, they aren’t the first in history. They were preceded in this feat by dancers at the Lusty Lady, a popular peep show in San Francisco, who organized the Exotic Dancers Union, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, in 1997 after a two-year organizing effort. Post-unionization, S.F.’s Lusty Lady eventually became a worker-owned co-op before it closed in 2013 — so the Star Garden strippers might ultimately take a page from the Lusty Lady in more ways than one. 

“I just feel over the moon about the fact that they unionized again and it’s happening again — they went all the way with it,” says local writer Antonia Crane, who happens to be a former Lusty Lady and actually went on to found Strippers United (then Soldiers of Pole) in 2018. “One thing that happens is when there’s a mass firing, it fizzles out the union drive because people need money and it’s hard — but the opposite happened in this case. A bunch of firings happened and they were just more dedicated. And they started fundraising and they got stronger.”

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