NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Star Garden Topless Dive Bar’s reopened their doors this weekend as the nation’s only unionized strip club to an audience of excited patrons, tense managerial staff, and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.
“Star Garden was dark. They had shut it down — well, we had shut it down, ” said one of the dancers, who goes by the stage name Velveeta, as she welcomed the crowd to kick off the opening night festivities.
“They had closed the club, filed for bankruptcy, and we — in an incredible victory for us, for the labor movement, for Actors’ Equity, for all of you who have supported us — we actually pulled them, we dragged them out of bankruptcy. And the lights are on at Star Garden’s tonight!”
Thursday, Aug. 24th’s, reopening was a raucous celebration both in and outside the club. The strippers were eager to take their first hard-earned twirl on the pole after almost a year and a half — now as union dancers — and the audience was equally excited to make it rain dollar bills. This historic milestone marked a rare triumph for entertainment unions this summer, amid the ongoing WGA (writers) and SAG (actors) strikes.
This night was a culmination of nearly five years of local stripper unionization efforts since the founding of Strippers United (formerly known as Soldiers of Pole). The organization offers labor rights resources and mutual aid, and on the “Who We Are” page of their website, they describe themselves as “a diverse and inclusive community of empowered strippers who share an uncompromised vision for our rights, our vital role in society and our dignity as professionals,” as well was “an authoritative voice in the stripper’s rights movement.” Strippers United lent initial support to the Star Garden dancers, who eventually organized as a part of the Actors’ Equity Association (“Equity”), a union representing live theatrical performers.
“Actors Equity [has] all-female leadership, and their head of legal had always wanted to work with sex workers and was really excited about the opportunity to do that as part of her job,” said Velveeta, “So it just was a really incredible, fortuitous match for us.”
This sex worker labor movement has implications far beyond the strippers who are directly involved. In a recent interview, historian Jayne Swift explained that modern sex positivity is largely a creation of sex workers and grows out of the material conditions of performing sexual labor in a society where such labor is typically stigmatized, criminalized, and exploited.
According to Swift, we have sex workers to thank for sex positivity’s impact on feminism and politics. And with Star Garden’s official unionization, they’ve earned early success among entertainment unions during what’s been dubbed the “hot labor summer.”
Star Garden is only the second strip club ever to unionize in the U.S. The first being San Francisco’s Lusty Lady, where workers organized the Exotic Dancers Union, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in 1997. Later the workers purchased the club, turning it into a co-op, which closed in 2013.
The scene at Star Garden
Last Thursday, outside the club on Lankershim Boulevard, Velveeta introduced Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, who has been a “comrade and friend” and “incredible supporter” of the Star Garden strippers, making previous appearances on the picket line, which was held weekly from March to November of 2022.
“My name is Tom Morello, and I’m a union man,” he announced as he stepped up to the mic and was greeted by collective whoops and cheers. Morello read a message from Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, “Our union was born 133 years ago. It is the union of Mother Jones, John L. Lewis, the CIO, Ludlow, Matewan, Blair Mountain, and thousands of other historic fights. We stand squarely with you in your fight to unionize. All workers need a union regardless of their occupation. Unions make bad jobs, good jobs; low-paying jobs, good-paying jobs; unsafe jobs, safe jobs; and that is exactly why your employer doesn’t want you to organize.”
“If you want higher wages, join a union,” Morello continued. “If you want healthcare, join a union. If you want better working conditions, join a union. If you want to tell the bosses to kiss your ass, join a union.” This crowd-pleasing line was quickly drowned out with laughs and cheers from the audience.
Morello played a few songs before the strip club’s doors reopened at 8 p.m., and even gave ten people $40 to comp the steep cover charge in an attempt to get more folks inside. Prior to the strike, the club didn’t have a door fee. However, this is one type of charge that is completely under management’s discretion and the owners don’t have to split with the strippers. Dancers are trying to negotiate this down or secure a cut of proceeds from the door.
There was lots of other union representation among the crowd, including hospitality workers from UNITE HERE Local 11 wearing matching red shirts, SAG actors, and WGA writers, including comedian Adam Conover, who currently serves on the board of the Writers Guild of America West, as well as the 2023 WGA contract negotiating committee.
Reagan and Lilith (for safety reasons, we’re referring to the dancers by their stage names) were the first of the night’s five strippers to be let inside. I was the first customer inside, but was eventually joined by a group of button-wearing union and sex worker supporters, strip club patrons who looked more like polite theater-goers than the horny folks you might expect. But before heading inside, I caught up with a few of the dancers and their lead negotiator from Equity to hear how bargaining their first contract has been going.
While they all expressed excitement to be returning to work, they were cautiously optimistic going into the first weekend back. According to May, a stripper whose employment was reinstated at the last minute, there’s been progress made on the safety concerns that helped spark the initial walk-out 17 months ago, but they are still bargaining over other items like the dancers’ cut of lap dances, high door fees relative to their competition, and a light schedule of dancers that may not be sufficient for their customers (though she acknowledged that ultimately some of this falls under management discretion).
These statements were echoed by the other dancers I spoke with, as well as Andrea Hoeschen, general counsel for Actors’ Equity Association, who said, “We are still actively negotiating the terms for a final collective bargaining agreement, and that includes wages and scheduling. But getting through this reopening is really important for both parties to have the information to reach a final deal.”
Inside the club, you could feel the tension between the dancers and management. For example, the ATM had been removed. The bar is now cashless, and management was unwilling to break large bills, making it harder for patrons to tip dancers, which is how they make the bulk of their income.
Diversity is another big issue still being negotiated. Selena is currently the club’s only Latina dancer of the twenty or so strippers who went on strike, the rest of whom are white. Though it’s taken 17 months to get back inside the club, and the two parties are still negotiating over the details, Selena said, “I’m really hopeful. I think them recognizing — voluntarily recognizing — the union was something that if you would’ve told me a year ago, I would’ve never, never imagined.”
Wicked agrees, and despite the work left to be done at the bargaining table, she’s in the mindset of celebrating the victories along the way. “This is revolutionary. This is massive.”