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Union effort by strippers at a North Hollywood club stalls with challenged ballots

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Dancers at a topless dive bar in North Hollywood holding a historic union election expected results Monday. They will need to wait a while longer.

The National Labor Relations Board said Monday that a majority of the ballots were challenged by the club, Star Garden, and the labor board couldn’t complete a tally.

The announcement was a setback for the group of strippers seeking to join Actors’ Equity Assn., a century-old union that represents actors and stage managers on Broadway and at venues such as the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. The effort represents a move by an established union to bring historically marginalized workers into the fold of organized labor.

The director of the board’s Region 31 Los Angeles office will need to determine whether the 16 challenged ballots should be opened and counted. One ballot cast in the mail-in vote wasn’t challenged and one ballot was voided.

The board didn’t reveal the vote of the single unchallenged ballot to preserve the privacy of the person who cast the vote, NLRB spokesperson Kayla Blado said in a statement.

The regional NLRB director could also order a hearing to determine the eligibility of the 16 people who cast the challenged ballots to vote in the election.

An attorney representing Star Garden said the club argues that dancers who submitted ballots were not employed by the business and thus weren’t eligible to vote.

“Those individuals were never employees of Star Garden since our client purchased the business in October 2021,” John Linker of Akerman, the law firm representing Star Garden, said in an email.

Actors’ Equity Assn. President Kate Shindle said Monday that Star Garden owners have continued to deny dancers ever worked at Star Garden.

One argument Star Garden might pursue is that dancers were not hired as employees but rather were leasing the space under contract, Shindle said. But the union “is confident these (dancers) are employees,” Shindle said.

“It’s disappointing. It’s a delaying tactic,” Shindle said. “We believe these challenges will get dismissed and we’ll keep going.”

Shindle and several Star Garden dancers who have been protesting outside the club for months gathered at Actors’ Equity offices in North Hollywood on Monday afternoon to hear the results of the election.

“We knew this was coming from these employers,” said a dancer who goes by the stage name Velveeta to protect her privacy. There’s “a history of strip club owners wanting to erase our dignity — wanting to erase our existence.”

Although ballots weren’t revealed, “we know how we voted,” Velveeta said. “This is a win. Period.”

If the dancers’ union vote eventually is successful, they would be the first strip club dancers in the country to join a guild since 1996.

The strippers’ election comes amid a wave of union efforts at individual work sites for companies including Starbucks, Amazon and Trader Joe’s — employers that have long staved off organized labor. Broad national unionization rates haven’t risen significantly, pushing unions to seek other ways to expand membership.

Most of the strippers seeking representation have not worked at Star Garden since mid-March, when 15 of the club’s 23 dancers raised safety concerns and demanded better working conditions. Several dancers were fired and for months have picketed outside the bar.

The dancers submitted a petition to Star Garden alleging that management had failed to take “basic steps” to protect their safety and privacy. The petition called for Star Garden to enforce safety policies preventing customers from filming and photographing dancers and lingering after closing time. It urged management to provide them copies of their work contracts and to stop overserving customers who they said get more belligerent when drinking heavily.

Dancers filed seven unfair labor practice allegations against Star Garden that are under investigation by the National Labor Relations Board.

The club’s lawyer said Monday that “a lot of nasty and untrue allegations have been levied against Star Garden. This is a small, family-run business that has always sought to do right by its employees and customers, which includes adhering to all state and federal labor laws.”

The group of protesting Star Garden dancers backed by Actors’ Equity filed a petition Aug. 17 seeking a union election with the federal labor board.

Star Garden’s legal representation argued against proceeding with an election at NLRB video conference hearings Sep. 9 and 15. Star Garden contended that it does not fall under the NLRB’s jurisdiction because it does not generate gross annual revenue of $500,000 or more.

The NLRB disagreed. For the 10-month period beginning October 2021, Star Garden had $424,587 in total revenue, according to an October filing by the director of NLRB Region 31 office in Los Angeles. Projected through a12-month period, the board found the club’s gross revenue to be about $509,504.

The board ruled Oct. 6 that the Star Garden workers were eligible to be represented by the Actors’ Equity Assn. and ordered the election.

Actors’ Equity has pursued a broader organizing focus in recent months, seeking to make inroads with new groups of workers.

In September, a dozen planetarium lecturers who educate visitors of Griffith Observatory about the night sky filed a petition to join Actors’ Equity.

Actors’ Equity leadership has previously said the union is looking into representing other workers such as actors who assist in medical training, performers at corporate events and improv artists.

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