Meet the strippers uniting for better conditions

  • Strippers at Star Garden in North Hollywood have been picking for more than nine weeks.
  • They initially walked out because of what they say are unsafe conditions and unfair layoffs.
  • Now they are going to form a union, making them the only strip club in the country.

On a recent Thursday night, a mob of witches and wizards gathered outside a dimly lit strip club in the North Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles, chanting, “You will not pass!”

It was another themed night for the Star Garden strippers, who have been patrolling for over nine weeks. They left their jobs in March over complaints about management’s handling of security issues. In response, they say, management shut them out of the club.

The picket events, whose themes ranged from the Renaissance to OSHA violations, encourage the club’s workers and allies to attend and demand better conditions.

It is a powerful organizational tactic for the group. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, there are usually at least five workers along the line, and they are often joined by former customers and union members from other companies.

“We just needed something to motivate us more and inspire us to show up,” said Lilith, a picket worker. (Insider agreed to use the artist’s stage names in this story.) “If you like a theme, you’re going to show up to the picket, or you’re more likely to do that, so it’s been really helpful in collecting of the troops, to keep us excited and just keep it light and fun when we’re doing such grueling work.”

The dancers are now trying to make Star Garden the only unionized strip club in the US, with the help of the labor rights and advocacy group Strippers United. They are part of an organizing wave sweeping the nation as workers say no and push back on what they see as unsafe working conditions and unfair treatment.

A stripper “deserves the same good working conditions you would expect from any other job,” Lilith said.

Requirements for a safe workplace

Leading up to the picket line, the club fired an organizer and stripper named Reagan, a petition from the dancers says.

Reagan said that after she brought security concerns about a customer to a bartender, he mocked her and said the customer would kill her.

“I was shaking and crying and just felt totally unheard of and unsafe, unprotected and had no idea what I was going to do,” she said.

Reagan said when she showed up for her next shift, she was fired. There are five complaints about unfair labor practices against the club.

The news thrilled the dancers and they started talking about organizing. They say the club then fired another dancer who intervened when a client took a video of their colleague without mutual consent. The strippers said they were later pulled to a meeting and told not to approach security with security concerns.

In March, Star Garden workers signed a petition calling on management to make major changes to the club, BuzzFeed News reported. Then they ran off the track.

When the workers showed up for their next shifts, they weren’t allowed to enter the club, said Velveeta, a dancer with Star Garden who said she had previously sued the club over charges of wage issues and misclassification of workers; she eventually got a settlement.

Local news channel KCRW reported on Tuesday that Star Garden’s owners Stepan “Steve” and Yevgenya “Jenny” Kazaryan wrote in testimony to the National Labor Relations Board that reviewed it that dancers were asked to leave “after acting aggressively toward customers and staff.”

Velveeta said management was trying to have one-on-one meetings with the dancers. “We know this is a union-breaking tactic,” Velveeta said. “We have maintained our request for a group meeting to discuss the security concerns.”

Star Garden and his attorney did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment.

A voter at Star Garden

A pick eater at Star Garden.

Thanks to the strippers association Star Garden

Now they unite

If the strippers manage to unite, Star Garden would become the only strip club in the country to have a union. They would follow in the footsteps of the workers of Lusty Lady, a San Francisco strip club that was the first ever to unionize and run as a co-op by workers, The New Yorker reported. It closed in 2013 over a rent dispute.

“It was an ideological battle, and unfortunately the greedy capitalists won, unfortunately,” Reagan said. “But now it’s time for round two.”

The strippers join workers across the country who come together for better terms — organizing workplaces like Starbucks and Amazon that were untouched by collective bargaining.

“I’ve always dreamed of being a union stripper and having a union job as a stripper,” Velveeta said. “I always thought that would be really great, but I didn’t know if there would ever be a chance for me to be a part of something like that.”

For many employees, it has been a year of such achievements. During the pandemic, Lilith realized that her unemployment income was higher than the wages from her previous two jobs combined.

“That was a huge wake-up call that employers are completely downplaying their employees on how much they pay them,” she said. “It’s amazing that workers get together and show their employers how valuable they are — and strip clubs should be no different.”

Reagan said she sees a “continuous line” from the conditions of the past two years to the nationwide wave of organizational efforts. When everything came to a standstill due to the pandemic, she and her friends launched online shows. They divided the income and donated to mutual aid and grassroots organizations. It helped her realize that she didn’t need the traditional structure of a club to be successful – they could do it together. The striking workers are even testing a co-op model for a fundraiser in which they would make decisions among themselves and divide tips equally.

“We don’t know how to be exploited in this way again with our rights completely ignored, bulldozed and our safety not a priority,” Reagan said. “We can’t go back to that because we already know what it looks like and how successful we can be if we do it ourselves.”

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