By Wyatte Grantham-Philips
Dancers at a Los Angeles bar could soon become the only unionized group of strippers in the U.S.
The Actors’ Equity Association labor union says owners of the Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in North Hollywood have withdrawn their opposition and agreed to recognize the strippers' union.
For 15 months, dancers at the club have sought safer workplace conditions, better pay and health insurance, among other benefits. But their unionization drive was stalled by objections and legal challenges from the club's management.
The union announced this week that management had agreed to a settlement. A formal vote count by the National Labor Relations Board has been set for Thursday.
“We’re hoping what we’ve done to unionize this club will have laid the groundwork for any other stripper in the country who decides that they want to also have a voice in the way their workplace is run,” Lilith, a dancer at Star Garden, told The Associated Press. Lilith asked not to be identified by her legal name in this article, due to fears of being harassed or stalked. The AP is aware of her legal name.
After being certified, the Star Garden dancers will join Actors’ Equity, a union representing more than 51,000 workers in the entertainment industry nationwide.
The Star Garden case is not the first time strippers in the U.S. have sought union recognition. In the late 90s, dancers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady organized the Exotic Dancers Union. But that club was shuttered in 2013 — so, if Thursday's results are certified by the NLRB as expected, the Star Garden dancers will become the country's only existing unionized strippers.
The dancers' union battle at the Star Garden dates back to March 2022 — after security guards at the club “repeatedly failed to protect” dancers from abusive or threatening patron behavior, and fired those who brought concerns to management, Actors’ Equity said.
“The positive side of Star Garden is that ... it's where dancers are allowed to express themselves in creative ways. And all of my coworkers looked out for each other — it was like a little family from the start,” Lilith said. “So, when we started noticing that there were some safety concerns that we all had, it didn't take long for us to band to together and decide we needed to do something about it.”
Lilith recalled a handful of instances that made her and other dancers feel unsafe while working — including a lack of adequate protection from sexual harassment and assault often faced by dancers. Star Garden management told dancers that they couldn't go directly to security when they felt unsafe, Lilith said — noting that they were instead instructed to go to management, who would decide “if it was a severe enough instance for security to intervene.”
Customers were also allowed to stay in the bar after closing, which made the dancers feel unsafe because patrons could see them dressed "out of our stripper personas" and identify which cars they drove when they went home, she said. According to Lilith, one dancer was fired for bringing up her concerns about this to management. Another dancer was fired for intervening when she noticed a customer filming a coworker on stage without her consent, she added.
After the two coworkers were fired, the Star Garden dancers banned together in efforts to get their jobs back. But after delivering a safety petition to their bosses, they were locked out of work, Lilith said — so they began picketing outside of the club. They later announced their affiliation with Actors' Equity, which filed for a NLRB guild election on behalf of the group.
According to the union, NLRB conducted the election via mail and planned for a November vote count. But those results were put on hold due to legal challenges from the Star Garden, which challenged the eligibility of some voters. The club also filed for bankruptcy protection.
As part of Tuesday's settlement, Star Garden agreed to dismiss the bankruptcy filing and reopen the club soon after, attorneys representing Star Garden management said in a statement.
“Star Garden decided to settle, as it has always been a fair and equal opportunity employer, that respects the rights of its employees,” attorneys Josiah R. Jenkins and An Nguyen Ruda said, adding that the club "is committed to negotiating in good faith with Actor’s Equity a first of its kind collective bargaining agreement which is fair to all parties.”
Mori Rubin, who approved the settlement as regional director for NLRB's Region 31, said she admired “the dancers who had the courage to protest their unsafe working conditions” and was “very pleased” with the settlement.
Lilith and other dancers said they were looking forward to preparing a union contract and returning to work.
“I'm feeling really optimistic about going back,” Lilith said. “It will definitely be surreal being back on that specific stage, but I know we’re going to have our community rallying around us .... And hopefully we’ll be able to show the country how successful a union strip club can be.”