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California Stars

Pole workers unite in North Hollywood
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In October 2018, signs began to appear in the dressing rooms of California strip clubs owned by the company Déjà Vu. They told dancers that “the club is now FORCED to make all entertainers become EMPLOYEES” in response to “lawsuits filed by certain entertainers and their attorneys.” At clubs owned by Spearmint Rhino, signs attributed the same change to a California Supreme Court decision. Regardless of the reason, dancers were given the unwelcome news that instead of taking home cash from private dance sales every night, the club would be collecting that money and issuing them a paycheck—after deducting the club’s cut and payroll withholding.

These signs were posted on social media by dancers who were concerned about the implications. But the messages weren’t entirely unprecedented: they echoed the kinds of announcements that have been made regularly over the last thirty years when clubs have implemented one change or another that ultimately meant dancers had to pay more in order to work. Whether these changes were due to a state labor board decision, a class action lawsuit, or a dancer’s wage and hour claim, “certain entertainers and their attorneys” would invariably be described as the parties at fault—not clubs’ inability to observe the legal requirements of the independent contractor relationship they had with their dancers.

Of course, some clubs did so, and simply: dancers showed up when they pleased, paid a stage fee to rent their time in the club, and were only obligated to heed local laws and regulations. At other clubs, though, dancers were subjected to lengthy lists of house rules, dress codes, scheduling requirements, minimum tips to staff, and minor infractions that could get them fired. Examples of these policies litter the evidence lists of successful labor lawsuits against clubs.

While dancers can organize against employers, it’s harder to organize around the realities of moving into a more formal economy from a cash one. 

But the individual success of nearly every labor case that’s been brought against a strip club hasn’t done anything to change the industry’s overall working conditions, nor has it done much to inspire dancers to form unions. In part, that’s because dancers are a workforce already difficult to organize. They are often in the business short-term, sporadically, and anonymously, and many dancers have had to expend their organizing capacity dealing with regulatory threats to close clubs, health and safety issues, or discriminatory hiring practices. The first and only exotic dancer union to date was the one formed in San Francisco at the Lusty Lady peep show in 1996.

All these years later, dancers at the North Hollywood club Star Garden are aiming to be the next. When the new owners of the club fired Reagan, a popular dancer, in late February, her coworkers seized the moment to push back in unison. Velveeta, a dancer who’d previously tried to organize another club she worked at with Reagan, helped lead the movement (all dancers are referred to by their stage names). “All the [dancers] were really upset about it, because she had a leadership role within the club, and everyone looked up to her and she brought in a lot of good customers. And so at that moment when she was fired, I offered the suggestion of coming together and organizing around that,” Velveeta says. Most of the dancers responded with enthusiasm. Their resolve was solidified when the club owners fired another dancer, Selena, for intervening with a customer on behalf of another dancer.  

Dancers walked out in March. At the beginning of May, they called on the club owners to voluntarily recognize the union through a card check agreement backed by a majority of the dancers. Since March, they’ve been on a picket line outside of the club, dressing in themed costumes, tracking the number of customers who go in, and bringing the number of dancers down from a high of fifteen per shift to as few as one, according to Velveeta.

Star Garden’s dancers are working to form an independent union through Strippers United, a dancer organizing group that began under the name Soldiers of Pole in late 2018. It was formed in response to the California Supreme Court’s decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles, a case that gave California employers a much stricter test for determining which workers were contractors. Strippers United has been urging dancers to unionize since then in order to get negotiating power. It’s been a hard-fought battle for a lot of reasons.

One of the biggest is that the clubs have the dressing room mirrors to advertise why it’s bad for dancers to have employee status—the thing that lets them form a union in the first place. Clubs argue that, first, dancers being contractors is best for everyone to ensure flexibility. Second, they claim that dancers who bring labor actions against clubs just couldn’t cut it and/or have been misled by greedy attorneys. Third, if the club is forced to make dancers employees, they will do so in a way that ensures most, if not all, of the new costs will be offloaded onto dancers.

There is precedent demonstrating how this last possibility would play out: for years some clubs, including Star Garden, have offered dancers the choice of signing on as contractors or employees. In Star Garden’s case, according to Velveeta, none of the dancers took the employee option because it took money out of their pockets. The deal for a contractor is that the club takes 50 percent of private dance sales, while an employee would get a minimum wage paycheck but would have to make a private dance sale quota of $200 before getting to keep 50 percent of the remaining sales. That’s a typical example of how some California clubs essentially reclassified the money paid for private dances from tips (which belong to workers) to fees (which belong to clubs), while simultaneously giving dancers a sales quota to make sure they sold enough private dances to pay their own hourly wage and payroll costs. One 2018 handbook I viewed stipulated dancers will receive, on top of an hourly wage, a percentage of their dance sales—but only after meeting the “cost of employment.” A lawsuit later alleged that this was retaliatory because clubs specifically blamed the policy on previous labor lawsuits (not to mention that there are clubs that don’t do this and just cut the hourly minimum wage check instead).

Dancers on the picket line outside Star Garden in North Hollywood. | Brendan Lott

Attorney Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, director of the Northwest Workers Justice Project, has worked on a number of dancer labor cases, including NLRB complaints on behalf of organizers of Stripper Strike PDX, an action that began during protests in Portland, Oregon, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and called for the city’s many strip clubs to treat nonwhite dancers more equitably. The effort garnered statements of solidarity on social media from twenty-three clubs in the city and enrolled a handful of clubs in antiracist training for staff before pivoting to a nonprofit direct aid model.

Spencer-Scheurich says clubs use employee status to intimidate dancers. “I think some clubs have set up employee models that are strict or inflexible as a way [of] punishing dancers for seeking to be treated as employees, but I don’t think that’s sustainable for the industry as a whole,” she continues. “I think they’ve discouraged, very effectively, dancers from coming forward because of the kind of misinformation or threats that they have made. Even just the fact that I have seen a copy of a California employment contract means that people are circulating that to try to instill fear.”

Velveeta says that this fear has been pervasive. “I feel like there’s widespread misinformation about employee status. I think dancers generally believe that as employees, you have less schedule flexibility and everything like that, and that you wouldn’t be able to take home the money you normally would.” But, she says, dancers working as independent contractors at many clubs are already subject to scheduling. “I think that clubs have used the threat of a more fixed schedule if you are an employee to discourage anyone from wanting to be an employee, because they just don’t want to pay us, like, period.”

Clubs have told dancers who object to losing their independent contractor status that they should lobby for “stripper choice.” A new group calling itself the Independent Entertainer Coalition also appeared, with a website at stripperchoice.com. The site’s copy reads: “Our organization was formed largely in response to the anti-worker movements throughout the country that seek to strip away the worker’s choice of deciding her employment status.”

An email I sent to the site in 2019 was answered by someone who told me the group was formed by three dancers in California. While I have not been able to confirm any astroturfing, the Independent Entertainer Coalition site was spread almost exclusively via Twitter and Facebook posts by the social media accounts of Déjà Vu strip clubs and has not been heard from since 2019. The only dancer I saw link to the site was Stormy Daniels, who was at the time a newly hired paid spokesperson for Déjà Vu. Daniels also wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in 2019 arguing that dancers should be contractors, repeating common club talking points: as employees, dancers would lose schedule flexibility, the right to refuse service to customers, and risk creating a paper trail of their time in a stigmatized business. These are the same arguments that activists who argue for employee status in order to get workers’ comp and legal protections from sexual harassment hear when they find that their coworkers are worried they’ll be outed as a dancer to family by a stray W-2.

Not mentioned in Daniels’s piece or anywhere on the IEC website is the fact that almost every single drawback of being an employee they name is something many clubs already impose on their independent contractors, which is why clubs almost always lose misclassification lawsuits. These dancer cases are such a slam dunk that there’s a law firm specializing in them now, and it advertises on social media, seeking dancer plaintiffs around the country. But the cases they bring will probably have the same results they always do: dancers eligible for class action payouts will get a check for a few hundred dollars, followed by a permanent rise in the house fees they pay each night, blamed on the club’s legal woes. In my experience over decades, when I’ve seen clubs shift in response to a new settlement, this has been increasingly accompanied with the need for dancers to sign new contracts that include arbitration clauses.

Velveeta herself tried using litigation to change Star Garden’s practices a few years ago, when the club was under different ownership. Dancers were being fined for lateness, and Velveeta questioned her boss about the practice with a pretty common complaint: “Since you’re not paying us, and you’re telling me I’m an independent contractor, the least you could do is stop charging me late fees. Because if you’re saying I’m an independent contractor, you shouldn’t be scheduling me anyway, is basically what I told them,” she says. The club’s response was like it or leave it. “I sued them, and I got a settlement, which felt great, but it didn’t change anything at the club. They still were doing all the illegal stuff.”

As long as basic rights and needs are tied to employment status, choices like this are a part of what it means to be a worker in the United States.

While dancers can organize against employers, it’s harder to organize around the realities of moving into a more formal economy from a cash one. This played out in a 2015 effort in Oregon to improve health and safety coverage in clubs, which failed in part due to concerns over worker status. Dancers faced with the choice of having workers comp and a paycheck—but one that might put them over the income limits that kept them and their kids on the Oregon Health Plan, or change the amount of tuition assistance they received—knew which option they’d take. As long as basic rights and needs are tied to employment status, choices like this are a part of what it means to be a worker in the United States.

Velveeta and her coworkers are willing to take the chance on solidarity. They want to negotiate the flexibility that dancers prize into their employment contracts along with just cause firing and fair wages, while also having a say in how security works. They want the club to end racist hiring practices. And they’d like other dancers to come to the same conclusion Velveeta has. “The law alone can’t be depended on to give you the rights that you deserve. You really have to organize with your coworkers to fight for your rights.”

They are in a unique situation: Star Garden is a small club with a close-knit workforce, the ownership is local and not corporate, and two of the dancers previously tried to organize another club. Velveeta says she learned something valuable from that failed effort.

“It’s really important to seize the moment when something bad happens, and really organize around that fire that people have when they feel like something’s wrong and they want to change it,” she says. “What happens so often in these clubs is something happens, and everyone adjusts to the new normal. And with something as egregious as this security policy, if we would have let that pass, and . . . adjusted to that, it’s like, what could be worse, you know? What else could we possibly put up with beyond that?” The clubs, for their part, certainly haven’t stopped asking.

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