By 10:30 am., the atmosphere inside the National Labor Relations Board conference hall on May 18 was raucous—and for good reason. After a 15-month strike, the locked-out strippers of Star Garden Topless Dive Bar had voted to form the first strip-club dancer’s union since the ’90s. As the ballots came in 17-0 in favor of the union, the dancers filled the room with squeals, hugs, and tears. “It feels like a dream come true,” Velveeta, a lead organizer, said.
Getting here took a fierce fight. The first official election ballot count at the Actor’s Equity Union Hall in November had resulted in multiple ballot challenges, a common union-busting tactic used to diminish a workforce’s eligibility, according to Actors’ Equity general counsel Andrea F. Hoeschen. Star Garden owners had argued that the dancers were “lessees”—meaning they were renting space from their strip club owners, a misclassification that acted as a delay tactic aimed at dragging out and shattering the campaign. Despite this, Kate Shindle, the president of Actors Equity, had remained optimistic. “I [kept] hoping that the Star Garden owners would do the right thing and recognize their workers’ rights,” she said. Unfortunately, the bosses were determined to make the workers—and their demands—vanish in a puff of glitter.
Union-busting tactics haven’t changed much in the last few decades, but organizing campaigns have. In recent years, they’ve become savvier, swifter, and more celebratory, while increasingly gaining nationwide support. In the first half of 2022 alone union elections were up 57 percent. In spite of predictable opposition by powerful corporations, workers have been winning—these election—from tech workers and booksellers to baristas, and now strippers.
Star Garden Strippers’ flamboyant picket line had drawn hordes of press and volunteers from the labor rights advocacy organization Strippers United. At one point, as one of many themed looks the picketing workers cycled through, strippers dressed as sexy newscasters and wielded stacks of an edition of The New York Times that featured an article on their unionizing effort.
It’s been 27 years since my fellow nude dancers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady Peepshow decided to unionize. In 1996, we didn’t have Instagram, Zoom, or even cell phones, but the union-busting playbook mirrored what the Star Garden unionized dancers had experienced. There had been intimidation, mass firings, mandatory meetings embellished with fake manager tears, delay tactics, and attempts to diminish our legitimacy as workers. It had started when Jesika, a nude performer at the Lusty Lady, was told to “go work elsewhere” after asking management to remove a customer who had been filming us without our consent. Jesika began gathering signatures for a petition to present to management, but soon abandoned it to begin a unionizing campaign instead.
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Siobhan Brooks, PhD, a Lusty Lady alum who has written about the importance of symbolic forms of affirmative action to ensure the hiring of more Black dancers, recalled the long, tense fight to include antidiscrimination language in our union contract in 1996. That experience could guide the Star Garden Strippers now as they consider their first contract, she said. “White dancers are not fighting to just include more Black dancers in a workplace that has a history of being mainly white, but building community with Black dancers,” she said. “Power sharing creates a culture of collective community.”
Now, after nearly nine months of picketing, the unionized Star Garden strippers are moving to the bargaining table. “The thrilling part—not the hard part—will be to negotiate,” said Selena, a Star Garden dancer who was fired for standing up for her coworkers’ safety. “I want to see that we can make a difference on the shop floor.” She said ending racial discrimination, racist hiring and firing policies, tip stealing, and wage theft are her top priorities.
Because tip-stealing and charging dancers arbitrary fees has long been normalized in strip clubs, one of the challenges ahead will be to rethink equitable pay structures. Club owners are accustomed to making their income from the strippers by siphoning their tips and charging them to work instead of implementing an entry fee from customers at the door or raising the price of drinks at the bar. “Door-dashing McDonald’s is more expensive than a lap dance,” Pandora, a Lusty Lady dancer and union shop steward, said. “Lap dances are a luxury experience and should be treated as that. Raise the prices.” One new model, she said, could include paying dancers a consulting fee.
Bread-and-butter demands like fair wages are imperative for the dancers. Still, there are other pressing issues Star Garden dancers are hoping to tackle. “Although we are brainstorming ideas about a fair pay structure, the galvanizing issue was safety and discriminatory hiring and firing policies,” said Reagan, another head organizer. Sinder, a nonbinary dancer, said they’re most concerned about dancer safety, including protections and rights for disabled and LGTBQ+ dancers. “I can’t wear heels right now, and it’s usually a mandatory thing at strip clubs,” they said. “I want transgendered and nonbinary people, and those of us with disabilities, to be able to work without having to wear stilettos.” And Stoney, a lead organizer for Strippers United, said she intends to fight to add Just Cause language to the contract. “Dancers are fired for standing up for themselves on the most basic issues like gaining weight, disagreeing with management,” she said. “You can’t just get rid of us.”
Star Garden’s unionized strippers are vibrant additions to the country’s labor movement. From North Hollywood to New Zealand, their message has inspired other strikes, rallies, and campaigns to fight for better working conditions. Their success will help eradicate the deep stigma sex workers experience, which can thwart attempts to collectively organize. The Star Garden dancers’ sheer determination and solidarity are proof that workers, regardless of profession, can triumph when united. “We’ve always had that fighting spirit,” said Charm, a dancer at Star Garden. “Our greater community wants us to win.”