Dancers at the Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in Los Angeles have voted to become the only unionised strippers in the US – joining a growing trend of young employees seeking workplace protection though labour mobilisation.
It makes Star Garden the first unionised strip club since the now-defunct Lusty Lady in San Francisco and Seattle. That 1996 union campaign was later the subject of the documentary “Live Nude Girls Unite”.
Lusty Lady shut its doors in Seattle in 2010, and three years later in San Francisco, making Star Garden if not the first then at present the only unionised strip club. But given the high-profile nature of the campaign – and the impact of union drives among young staff elsewhere – I believe that there is a high chance that Star Garden won’t be the last strip joint to unionise.
Rusty nails, broken glass
Star Garden is the latest in a string of organising breakthroughs. In 2022, 2,510 petitions for union representation were filed with National Labor Relations Board elections – a 53% increase from 2021 and the highest number since 2016. Petitions for union elections have continued to increase in 2023.
Just as at Star Garden, many of the recent union victories have occurred in workplaces that previously seemed resistant to labour drives. Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Apple retail stores, REI, Ben & Jerry’s, Chipotle and Barnes & Noble are among the big-name companies that have seen staff unionise for the first time since workers voted to unionise at Starbucks in Buffalo in December 2021. Evidence suggests that a successful union drive leads to more. Workers at over 300 Starbucks stores have now voted to unionise, and their efforts have inspired young workers throughout the low-wage service sector.
But in other crucial ways their campaign chimes with that of the other new union drives than have occurred recently in the United States. Star Garden employs the same kind of young, self-assured workers that have contributed to the dynamism of union campaigns at Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and others. Most of the dancers are in their 20s and 30s, and they have proved assured spokespeople for the union during the campaign’s extensive coverage in traditional and social media.
In contrast to past generations of union drives, it is young employees that are spearheading the new push for unions. They are doing so independently, with less outside mobilising from established union leaders. The Star Garden workers self-organised and repeatedly pressured management to act on their concerns before deciding to petition for a union election with Actors’ Equity Union.
Moreover, the issues cited by Star Garden workers as evidence of a need for union protection – sexual harassment by customers, unresponsive management and an unsafe working environment – are in many respects just more extreme versions of the problems that have driven many retail and food-service-sector workers to mobilise.
In common with workers at Starbucks, REI and Trader Joe’s, the Star Garden dancers concluded that having a union and collective bargaining was the surest way to remedy such problems.
And like many of those other workforces, the Star Garden strippers faced a long battle against management to achieve that goal.
The organising campaign lasted for 15 months as a result of company’s efforts to fight worker organising and then prevent a union vote.
Workers voted in a National Labor Relations Board election in November 2022, but management opposition prevented the labor board from counting the ballots until last week. Among other tactics, the owners of Star Garden are alleged to have retaliated against workers for protesting an unsafe working environment and claimed that the workers were independent contractors, not employees. Employers also filed for bankruptcy – an act that can void a union contract.
But the anti-union tactics failed. When the ballots were eventually counted, they showed that workers had voted unanimously for union recognition. In common with campaigns at Starbucks and elsewhere, the success at Star Garden suggests that traditional anti-union tactics may be less effective with today’s younger workers.
There is another common theme in the rash of union breakthroughs in recent years: They have generated headlines.
Star Garden may not have the big-name appeal to media outlets of, say, Starbucks or Amazon. But the nature of the business involved lends itself to widespread media and social coverage. In short, “strippers’ unionise” makes for great headlines.
The high profile of this and other drives is an important part of the story. Widespread social media and traditional news coverage can raise awareness of the potential to unionise among other young workforces. It conveys to employees that organising is something they can do, not just something they read about.
Time for a new corporate strategy?
There is also a takeaway from union drives by Star Garden strippers and other workers for corporations: The public may be tiring of old-style anti-union tactics, and it may be in their interests to work with employees seeking to unionise.
As Lilith, one of the Star Garden dancers, told the BBC: “A union strip club is going to be a novelty in the United States. It will have customers from all over. … I think if both parties come to negotiate in good faith, we can create a really successful business together.”
From my perspective, it does prompt the question of whether it is time for company bosses to embrace unions. With over 70% of the public approving of unions – and a much higher proportion of young workers – companies like Star Garden, Starbucks and REI could potentially benefit from marketing themselves as “good employers” who respect their workers’ right to choose a union.
Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s is one such company seemingly taking that approach. In January, it became the first major national employer to sign the Starbucks Workers United-initiated “Fair Election Principles,” which would guarantee workers a free and fair choice to unionise. The union recognition process at Ben & Jerry’s is scheduled for the Monday of Memorial Day weekend.
Star Garden may be the country’s only unionised topless bar. But it is part of a wider trend that is influencing attitudes toward mobilising in young workforces across the country – from servers to ice cream scoopers and now strippers.
John Logan is Professor and Director of Labor and Employment Studies, San Francisco State University.