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Dancers at a Los Angeles topless bar become the country's first unionized strippers


After more than a year on the picket line, dancers at a topless club in Los Angeles prevailed in a long-running battle against the owners of a strip club to recognize their union. They are now the only unionized strippers in America, and advocates hope it'll inspire other strippers around the country to organize. Sergio Olmos reports from Los Angeles.

SERGIO OLMOS, BYLINE: After 15 months of being on strike, strippers at the Star Garden Bar in North Hollywood are coming back to work soon but now under collective bargaining agreement. The dancers went on strike last year after organizers say their concerns about workplace safety, like customer harassment and poorly maintained stages, went unaddressed by management. A former stripper, now a lead organizer with Strippers United asked to be identified only by her stage name, Stoney, to protect her identity and safety. She says the stigma of stripping can prevent honest discussion about dancers' rights.

STONEY: We are workers, too, and we have a right to dignity and respect, same as any other worker. And even if people may find our job to be immoral, that doesn't mean we deserve to be unsafe.

OLMOS: In May, the club's 17 dancers voted unanimously to join the Actors' Equity Association, a union with 51,000 members representing actors and stage managers from Broadway to Walt Disney World. After a long fight, the owners finally recognized the union and have 30 days to start negotiating a contract with the dancers. A dancer at Star Garden who goes by the stage name Selena says the union drive was a difficult and often humiliating process. She recalls one encounter with a representative of the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, the agency charged with overseeing safety in the workplace.

SELENA: We also had an OSHA employee tell us directly and pray over us that our sins were going to be repent because we did the type of work that's favored by the devil.

OLMOS: For months, the bar's owners tried to stop the union drive, arguing the dancers were not employees but independent performers leasing space in the club. The National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, didn't buy that argument. The attorney representing the owners of Star Garden did not respond to NPR's request for comment. The dancers hope to inspire other strippers to stand up for their labor rights. Kate Shindle is the president of Actors' Equity Association. She says they're already looking to include more strippers nationwide.

KATE SHINDLE: I know we're already talking to at least one other club seriously.

OLMOS: Shindle says this is the right fit. Actors' Equity understands the workplace challenges strippers can face.

SHINDLE: We already had so many things in our contract that - although the work is not identical, we're seeking to protect against a lot of the things that the dancers encounter - broken glass on the stage, audience interaction, you know, general safety, sexual harassment. Even things like nudity in auditions are things that are covered by our collective bargaining agreements.

OLMOS: The NLRB could soon rule on a case that could impact the classification of independent contractors in the workplace. That could ease the way for more workers to join unions and provide them protections from any potential retaliation for doing so, especially those that commonly lease space in a business such as hairstylists, fitness instructors and even strippers. For NPR News, I'm Sergio Olmos in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "THOSE DAYS ARE NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sergio Olmos