Strippers turn to unions after litigation, legislation falters

“Selena the Stripper” danced in Los Angeles-area clubs for about five years, which included a period marked by steep pay cuts from fewer patrons during the pandemic, in addition to stage fees eating into the wages.

Unmet lap dancing quotas have often left some exotic dancers in the red, and many say they’re forced to lose weight or even face racial discrimination in the form of less desirable changes. Increasingly complex labor contracts, thanks to new enforcement rules in California, could mean fewer hours for some.

Dancers also fear they have little recourse if they are hurt or harassed.

Selena, who asked to use a stage name to avoid retaliation, is among the dancers leading an effort to unionize strip clubs across the state in a bid to improve wages and working conditions.

“These clubs and big franchises don’t like the idea of ​​workers taking over. It sets an example and shows what is possible,” said Selena, president of independent union Strippers United. “Strippers are treated like they have no value and they have internalized that. They don’t always see themselves as deserving of rights.

California’s labor push comes amid a mountain of litigation over wage and hour practices, harassment and misclassifications that has led to multimillion-dollar settlements against clubs across the country. Several courts have ruled that strippers are legally employees under wage and hour laws, rather than independent contractors.

A California worker classification test, codified in 2019 as Assembly Bill 5, has made it harder for companies to defend business models that rely on independent contractors.

But strip club operators, dancers and lawyers told Bloomberg Law that neither the measure nor the litigation had caused sweeping changes in the industry.

Now some say unionizing is the best way to help dancers.

“The Legislature cannot solve this problem because it solves things with such a broad brush and the problems of this industry are so narrow to this industry,” said Kevin M. Osborne, partner at Erickson Kramer Osborne LLP. , a class action boutique. law firm in San Francisco. “The union could bargain in its best interests without being subject to these general labor laws, but does not necessarily provide workers with what they need.”

A stripper holds a megaphone during a demonstration against working conditions.

Photo by Brendan Lott via Strippers United

Picketing for Rights

Strippers United, an independent union formed in 2018, first targeted the Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in Los Angeles, where dancers have been picketing for weeks to pressure owners to recognize the union.

Star Garden is said to be the first unionized strip club in the United States since 1996, when strippers formed the Exotic Dancers Union at the Lusty Lady Peepshow in San Francisco. Lusty Lady, whose dancers organized under the Service Employees International Union, closed in 2013.

Star Garden did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The club’s labor lawyer also did not respond to a request for comment.

A few dozen dancers have sent a petition to club owners demanding better safety conditions and the reinstatement of workers who allege unfair retaliation. They also filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board and safety reports with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health regarding bed bugs, broken glass and protruding rusty nails on stage.

Lilith, who also asked to use her stage name to avoid retaliation, has been on the Star Garden picket line every week since March. She says she has to sign a “lease agreement” that makes her an entrepreneur and prevents her from earning an hourly wage. Instead, she receives tips and splits payment for lap dances with clubs.

She said she could make as little as $100 per shift to over $1,000 per night.

Lilith loves to get naked but has sometimes felt unsafe. She played with broken glass in the lap dance area and then pulled a shard off her heel and experienced another dancer who cut her foot.
Another time a drunk customer came to pick her up and she couldn’t get him off.

But it was the firing of two colleagues who complained about safety issues and unruly customers that sparked the petition and the picketing, Lilith said.

“We’ve all had our own individual experiences, where customers crossed our borders and security didn’t intervene and we had to fend for ourselves,” she said. “It’s really those things that turned us on.”

Closing Clubs

Ryan Carlson, CEO of Deja Vu Services Inc., one of the largest strip club operators in the United States, said seven of its clubs in California became unprofitable and were forced to close after were forced to classify dancers as employees. Dancers at the remaining clubs only get part-time shifts, he said.

Deja Vu clubs are also losing dancers to competitors who haven’t changed the way they classify workers, he said.

“Professional artists want to go home with money and set their own schedules,” Carlson said. “The employment model cannot offer this because a club cannot operate with massive overtime, unpredictable schedules and a host of other practical impossibilities that arise.”

Carlson also dismissed the union effort, pointing to a previous unsuccessful campaign in San Francisco. Artists value independence and autonomy, he said.

“Plus, an average dancer under the job model still earns over $50 an hour, which is more than most educated professionals,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how quickly a union of dancers can drive a club out of business.”

Obstacles remain

Class action lawsuits have produced major court victories and settlements in California and elsewhere, including Ohio, New York, Florida and Nevada. California’s commissioner of labor is also investigating, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg Law, a series of complaints alleging that clubs in the state failed to pay wages and made illegal tip deductions between 2019 and 2022.

But large-scale wage and hour, harassment and misclassification cases filed by strippers plateaued in 2019, said Manny Starr, an attorney at the Frontier Law Center who has represented dancers. It would be unusual at this stage for there to be another lawsuit against a major operator, and cases involving smaller clubs are harder to come by, he said.

“I believe these individual cases exist, and they’re probably having their rights violated, but that doesn’t get the attention of the larger types of class action lawsuits,” Starr said of companies on the plaintiffs’ side that would traditionally take on such cases.

Brad Nakase, a California-based attorney who has represented dancers, said he receives a dozen emails a week about “unfathomable mistreatment and employment law violations”.

But few lawyers are willing to step in because of concerns for personal safety, small damages or insufficient numbers of dancers for a class action, he said.

Strippers United’s Selena, who frequently speaks to strippers in the state, said the AB 5 likely made things worse. Dancers are required to sign restrictive contracts that see them as partial club owners, or they are given so few hours as employees that they cannot earn enough money from their shifts.

“You have to work double hard, and many are not making a quota with the pandemic. And after the pandemic, the wages went down and the money wasn’t what it used to be,” Selena said. “The dancers are really hurting and struggling under the burden.”

Comments are closed.