In a historic step, strippers at an LA bar unionize
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Times have changed since auto workers or steel workers represented the face of labor. Today, it's Starbucks baristas and university adjuncts and now topless dancers. Last week, performers at the Star Garden Bar in Los Angeles became the first group of unionized strippers in the country. They voted unanimously to join the Actors' Equity Association. NPR's Emma Bowman has their story.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Hands down. LA is a union town.
EMMA BOWMAN, BYLINE: I caught up with the dancers outside Disney Studios in Burbank, where they joined Writers Guild members on the picket line. After winning their historic union election, the dancers wanted to do a victory lap. They came here to show solidarity with the striking union writers. The dancers spoke with me using their stage names to protect their privacy and safety. Lilith danced at Star Garden before the union effort and is also in the Writers Guild.
LILITH: And I still have to strip as a side hustle because none of these professions are paid enough, especially with the gaps in employment that happen.
BOWMAN: And it's not that she has to strip. She enjoys it. But in March of last year, she and more than a dozen other dancers were locked out of their workplace after asking management to address safety and privacy concerns they had at Star Garden. They said security failed to intervene when customers threatened and physically assaulted them and that dancers were filmed without consent. When two dancers who expressed their concerns were fired, that was the final push that drove the group to take the first leap in an effort to unionize. For eight months, they took their talents to the picket line with themed runway shows outside Star Garden on the club's busiest nights. When it came to forming a union, partnering with Actors' Equity seemed like a natural fit, says Andrea Hoeschen, the union's general counsel.
ANDREA HOESCHEN: The concerns they had and the reasons they needed a union were the same reasons our actors and stage managers need a union - safety on stage, safe backstage areas, sanitary backstage areas.
BOWMAN: Last week, Star Garden management withdrew all challenges and agreed to recognize the union. That reality is starting to sink in for May, another Star Garden dancer.
MAY: It's so official. And I think, you know, stripping can be such an unofficial - like, you can keep it low key. You don't have to tell people. It's very anonymous a lot of the time. And it's really cool to be recognized in, like, a way that a lot of people don't get. We can be open about it in a different way.
BOWMAN: Reagan, another dancer, is optimistic about the next hurdle. Actors' Equity and Star Garden management now have to work together to negotiate a contract.
REAGAN: We all want Star Garden to be successful. That is what we're about. Unionizing is not about tearing this place down. It's about building it up.
BOWMAN: Reagan said the dancers have been mentoring other groups of strippers from around the country who've been inspired by their fight. One piece of advice she has...
REAGAN: The dancers have to want a union. And if they don't, that's perfectly fine. And if they do, we're here to help.
BOWMAN: They're also paying it forward. The Star Garden dancers take direct inspiration from strippers at the Lusty Lady, a now-defunct peep show in San Francisco. Dancers there in the mid-1990s led the last successful stripper unionization effort and even bought the club. In 2013, though, rising rent prices forced the club to shut down. Still, like the Lusty Ladies, the dancers at Star Garden hope that one day they, too, can buy their own stripper-run club.
Emma Bowman, NPR News in Los Angeles.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEMIR SONG, "AILLEURS (FEAT. DEEN BURBIGO)"
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