Video produced and edited by Libby Rainey and Meg Herschlein
Strippers in Los Angeles are trying to form America’s only unionized strip club. Dancers at Star Garden started organizing with Strippers United after two workers were fired for voicing safety concerns about customers. If they succeed, they’ll be the first strip club to win union recognition since the 1990s. We spoke to Star Garden strippers about their organizing drive. Below is a full transcript of the video.
[Protestors chanting]: F*ck you! F*ck this! This is our club, stop stealing our tips!
Reagan: I became a stripper, because if the world is set up in this way that I am going to be exploited for my femme body, I want control over that. I want to exploit the system that seeks to exploit me. If this is what we’re given, we need to turn that around and make it work for us. I’m gonna unionize. Everyone’s like “are you serious? Are you kidding me? Strippers organizing? They want a union? What’s next? The world is ending,” and it’s like, no, we’re just like you. We’re just people trying to work in an exploitative capitalist society.
I was fired for bringing up a safety concern about a customer. I saw red flags, and I was concerned that things were accelerating in an alarming way that could lead to obsession. I saw red flags of, like, possessiveness.
[Reagan at the protest]: When I brought up my concerns to the manager on duty that night, he mocked me to my face, telling me that I was going to be murdered by that customer, and how I was going to be murdered by him. Probably shot, as the security guard predicted.
Reagan: Told me basically that it was my fault that I must be doing something to lead him on. This is not an isolated kind of occurrence. This is, like, something that you deal with as a dancer. My real ask for them that night was just to make sure that all of the customers were kicked out at the end of the night so that they weren’t lingering, watching us get into our cars, watching us leave and go home, watching us count our money, watching us interact with our boss—all of these things that should be kept private.
Selena was fired after me.
[Selena at the protest]: I told management I didn’t feel safe.
Charm: After Selena was fired, that’s when they addressed us as a group and said, “You’re not allowed to go straight to security. If you have any safety issues, you have to go through the management and we’ll decide if we think it’s a good enough reason to get security involved.”
If you are harassed, or touched in a way that you don’t like, or recorded, you just have to endure it and do the policing and de-escalation yourself in the moment; and then maybe something retroactively will happen.
Velveeta: We’re an exploited workforce. Strip club owners view us as disposable and they view us as whores, just like the rest of society, generally. An owner like Steve or Jenny makes it very clear that they don’t see the value that we bring to the business, and they don’t see us inherently as human beings deserving respect and safety.
[Reagan at the protest]: In Texas, a stripper named Abigail Saldaña was murdered by her customer, Stanley—who was obsessed and possessive of her—and shot her to death after following her out of the club where she worked at Rick’s Cabaret. The club managers told the police that Abigail had told them that she was concerned about this customer, and they did nothing.
Reagan: Really this campaign was built on safety, and safety is the most un-nuanced thing that I can think of for us to be fighting for.
Charm: The way that it works in most strip clubs across the country is you come into work and you make tips and you make lap dances. And in some way, whether it’s a portion of your lap dances or a portion of your tips, you are an independent contractor, so you’re paying the employer or the business owner to rent the space. And it’s a little bit more complicated in California with the passage of AB5, which classifies strippers as employees instead of independent contractors.
Because the strip club model was not built to support an employee relationship with the owners, a lot of clubs in California as a whole have made some really shady adjustments. Like, “okay well we’ll give you minimum wage but we’re going to take 50% of your lap dances now,” or “we’ll give you minimum wage but you have to pay a flat rate of $200 now to come in and work.” So they’re essentially compensating themselves for having to pay you minimum wage, and dancers actually end up making less money.
Velveeta: One of the first things that Jenny made clear to me in my introductory session was that “dancers are really important because that’s the only way we make money.” And I’m thinking in my head, but you’re also charging $10 for a beer. No, I am there and I am the strip club, and you wouldn’t have a business without me, and you wouldn’t be able to bring any customers into your bar and charge the kind of money you’re charging without me.
Reagan: Employee status gives strippers more power if they harness it. If they don’t harness it, then they’re further exploited by the strip clubs, which is what we’re seeing now, where every strip club has a different loophole and shady practices of how to get around the laws that are supposed to be giving us more benefits, more rights, and pay us a minimum wage. But because no one yet has harnessed that power and done the ultimate thing that you can do when you’re an employee, which is unionize—at that point, we can see some changes.
[Protestors chanting]: Strippers, united, will never be divided!
[Antonia Crane at the protest]: It has been 25 years, 9 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days since strippers have made the decision to unionize and fight for their safety at work. I was one of the strippers at Lusy Lady in 1996.
Antonia Crane: I didn’t realize that being one of the organizers and voting employees—one of the unionizing dancers at the Lusty Lady—was gonna be basically the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It doesn’t matter if you’re making all the money in the world, you have to think about the next generation of strippers, and your safety, and your siblings’ safety, and the safety of the person next to you.
Reagan: We really love this job, and we’re not trying to, like, destroy Star Garden and we’re not trying to destroy stripping. We actually love Star Garden, and that’s why we’re putting up this fight, and we’re fighting for it, not against it.
[Reagan at the protest]: When sex workers come under attack, what do we do?
[Protestors]: Stand up fight back!