Strippers at the Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in North Hollywood, California, have filed with the National Labor Relations Board seeking to join the Actors Equity Association, a union of performers and other show business professionals.
“We like what we do. We would like our jobs even more if we had basic worker protections,” said one of the strippers who works under the stage name Velveeta, in statement released by the union.
Among the issues that the strippers say they want addressed are the club’s security guards repeatedly failing to protect dancers from threatening and abusive behavior from patrons.
“We’re like so many other workers who have learned that it’s not a choice between suffering abuse or quitting,” she said. “With a union, together, we can make needed improvements to our workplace.”
No members of Star Garden Enterprise, the owner of the club, could be reached for comment Wednesday. They also did not respond to a request for comment for an earlier story by CNN.
There would be about 30 strippers eligible to vote on whether or not to join a union, according to Actors Equity, a 109-year old union that represents 51,000 actors and other professionals who work in everything from Broadway shows in New York City to onstage performers at Disney World and dozens of theaters across the country.
“Strippers are live entertainers, and while some aspects of their job are unique, they have much in common with other Equity members who dance for a living,” said Actors’ Equity President Kate Shindle. “In my conversations with them, these dancers reported consistent compensation issues - including significant wage theft - along with health and safety risks and violations. They want health insurance and other benefits, like workers’ compensation.”
Strippers at the club have been holding informational pickets since March to protest working conditions, ever since two performers wer fired eand more than a dozen others signed a petition demanding their reinstatement. There have been 15 strippers locked out of working at the club since then, they say, and an unfair labor practice complaint was filed against management with the NLRB. The union is arguing that those locked out strippers should be allowed to vote in the union election.
Velveeta, who said she hasn’t worked since March, said in an interview Wednesday that $50,000 in donations has been raised for an “action fund,” similar to a strike fund, to help support the locked out strippers.
She is surviving on help from the fund, she said, and from savings and some acting jobs while some of the strippers have found work at other clubs. She wants to have a union to improve working conditions at Star Garden, rather than have to find work elsewhere.
“Star Garden is an example of the worst of the worst. But every club has problems,” she said. “Some clubs are better than others, but none are ideal.”
Velveeta, 31, has been working as a stripper for five years. She said the clubs don’t pay anything, and demand half the strippers’ tips.
“Sometimes you can leave with less than minimum wage, if it’s slow,” she said. “But if you have a good customer come through you can make up to $500 in a night.”
There has not been a union of strippers in the United States since the nation’s only unionized strip club, the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, closed in 2013, according to Actors Equity.
In many US locations strippers are classified as independent contractors rather than strip club employees, and organizing them into a union poses significant legal hurdles. California has protections for many workers classified as employees who might be considered independent contractors elsewhere.
While about one third of government workers belong to a union, according to Labor Department statistics, only 6.1% of workers employed by businesses are union members. Many workers in film and television belong to various unions, but most private sector union members are concentrated in a few specific industries, such as manufacturing, airlines, construction and health care.
There have been increasing efforts in recent years to organize workers in service sector businesses, such as the union organizing drive now going on at Starbucks.
– CNN’s Natasha Chen contributed to this report