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Encore: Exotic dancers in Hollywood push for unionization

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Exotic dancers in Hollywood are fighting to unionize. They want to create the first U.S. strippers union since the 1990s. From KCRW, Robin Estrin reports.

ROBIN ESTRIN, BYLINE: When the pandemic shuttered businesses, Reagan, a stripper with 10 years' experience and a degree in women and gender studies, did what a lot of workers did to survive - she took her business online.

REAGAN: Dancers started to create virtual shows that took out all of the middlemen.

ESTRIN: Online, dancers got to be their own bosses and their own bouncers.

REAGAN: If anyone is acting out of line or being rude or harassing us, we can just block them.

ESTRIN: When Star Garden Topless Dive Bar reopened, Reagan returned to work there. She says it wasn't the same.

REAGAN: We felt more disposable, probably because we knew that it didn't have to be that way. So it felt even more acute.

ESTRIN: We're using a stage name for Reagan and other dancers. They're worried about being targeted and staying safe. Safety is also why the dancers are fighting to unionize. They say the club's owners prohibit security guards from intervening on their behalf.

REAGAN: I had never heard that from a security guard in my life. You're not allowed to intervene. Isn't that your entire job? What are you doing, then? You're just standing around for decoration?

ESTRIN: Dancers who spoke out with concerns, including Reagan, say they were fired. Mid-March, Reagan's co-workers walked out in protest. Then they say management locked them out. The club's owners and attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Veena Dubal, a labor law professor at UC Hastings, says stripping is dangerous.

VEENA DUBAL: A lot of the people who do this work experience a lot of bodily injury. So it's the type of work that really needs workplace protections in place.

ESTRIN: Dubal says a strip club is a unique work environment, but the issues dancers face on the job are not, like wage theft and misclassification by employers who are skirting the law.

DUBAL: When people can't turn to the state, when they can't turn to their bosses, they turn to each other.

VELVEETA: Everyone inside has crossed the picket line.

ESTRIN: Star Garden's dancers have been picketing outside the nightclub for months. They're trying to hit the club owners where it hurts - in the pocket. Here, a dancer named Velveeta is trying to turn away a customer. A young guy named Jacob Rosier has parked his white pickup truck in the lot, and he's trying to walk into the club.

VELVEETA: Yeah. It's like, really...

JACOB ROSIER: Yeah. No, if you feel like you're unsafe, then no, you have every right to call a security guard.

VELVEETA: Yeah, exactly. Exactly, so...

ROSIER: Right.

ESTRIN: Rosier, from Texas, ended up in the club anyway. To successfully unionize, the dancers will have to enlist the support of the National Labor Relations Board, the agency that oversees union elections. Here's Dubal, the attorney, again.

DUBAL: They have an extra hurdle. They have to prove that they're employees before they can benefit from any of the federal labor rights.

ESTRIN: Including the right to unionize. That's a right afforded to employees, not independent contractors. And strippers are regularly misclassified. If the NLRB sympathizes with the dancers, the agency can force Star Garden's owners to rehire them. From there, they can unionize.

REAGAN: The first stripper union in 30 years, by and for strippers - that's going to be historic.

ESTRIN: This could take a while, but Reagan isn't waiting around. She and the other dancers are once again putting on their own shows and acting as their own bosses. For NPR News, I'm Robin Estrin in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.