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The Naked and the Red

Led by a Boeing machinist-turned-nude dancer, Las Vegas strippers are talking union.
 
 
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A specter haunts Las Vegas: organized strippers. Behind this nightmare vision lurks Andrea Hackett, a former male factory-worker turned nude dancer. And the headlines Hackett has been making have nothing to do with her sex change. Here in Glitter Gulch that raises no more eyebrows than, say, a PTA president's divorce in Peoria.

No. Hackett's the talk of the town because the lanky, blond-streaked 49-year-old with a spectacular set of enameled fingernails has been frenetically trying to organize Vegas's thousands of strippers and nude dancers, launching them into a head-on battle royal against local government -- and indirectly against the all-powerful corporate gambling interests that dominate this city's political life. "They wanted a fight," she says, unpacking a file of organizational charts and strategy notes. "And now I'm giving it to them."

This unusually colorful episode of open class warfare erupted last summer when the Clark County commissioners voted 5 to 1 to heavily regulate the stripping and lap dancing that bring millions of tourists and conventioneers and many more of their dollars annually into Vegas's thirty-six "gentlemen's clubs" and provide income for 15,000 women dancers. (No one knows for sure, but the guess is that something like a million lap dances a year are performed in Vegas clubs at twenty-five bucks a pop or more.)

Like a Church Lady skit straight out of SNL, the county commissioners took a hands-on approach -- excuse the pun -- to defining what would now become a legal or illegal lap dance. In brief, a dancer would no longer be able to sit on a customer's genital area -- i.e., his lap -- more or less rendering the very essence of the dance impotent. Dancers could no longer solicit tips. Customers could offer them but were specifically barred from any longer performing the traditional gesture of placing currency in dancers' G-strings. "This was a declaration of war," Hackett huffs. "In short, they were outlawing lap dancing."

Before her sex-change operation in 1995, Hackett spent seventeen years working for Boeing in Seattle as a machinist and union activist. Now she drew upon her previous organizing experience to fight back. "I know I'm the only nude dancer in Vegas who went to Woodstock and who burned her draft card," she says. And for good measure, she adds, "I'm also a socialist."

Within days of the bill's passage, Hackett founded the Las Vegas Dancers Alliance, and by the end of the summer she had signed up nearly 1,000 members. She now has "club reps" -- sort of clandestine shop stewards -- in about two-thirds of the dance establishments, and they are signing up about 25 new members a week. In addition to holding regular organizing meetings at the local library, Hackett's LVDA published a "Dancers Voter Guide" for the November 2002 election and conducted the first known voter-registration drive in history of nude and lap dancers. "We registered almost 500 new voters among the girls," she says proudly.

The LVDA has affiliated unofficially with almost 50 other groups, including the Sierra Club and the northern Nevada NAACP, that make up the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), and Hackett has forged a close working relationship with the local ACLU.

"She's got the energy of ten organizers and the skills to go along with it," says Paul Brown, southern Nevada director of PLAN. "The County Commission has set off a spark that has turned into a firestorm. This basically comes down to an important issue of labor practices."

In the past few weeks Hackett has also met with state AFL-CIO officials and other union activists exploring affiliation. "Do we want to become a union?" she asks and then answers her own query. "Let's just say that all roads are leading to the same conclusion." One organizer for a major international industrial union who met with Hackett says his organization is looking seriously into some form of collaboration. "We'd love to have these dancers eventually in our union, and we're going to help out every way we can," he says.

Hackett and other local political observers agree that the crackdown on lap dancing can be traced to the economic squeeze the big Vegas casinos and hotels have been feeling since 2000. Business is only down 2 - 4 percent, but that's an ice-cold shower for an industry that has been spoiled by two decades of uninterrupted growth and profitability. To jack up the inflow of tourists, many of the casino resorts have been turning to racier floor shows, but they are still prohibited by state regulation from mixing gambling with strip or lap dancing. In the past few weeks all of America has been exposed to a new, sexually suggestive, multimillion-dollar TV ad campaign run by Vegas gambling and hotel interests promising "What happens here, stays here." Meanwhile, the mega-lit billboards atop the giant Vegas hotels are filled more and more with explicitly sexual lures.

The lap-dance clubs near the big hotels commit the cardinal sin of drawing guests off these resort properties and out of the casinos and pricey restaurants. And some of these clubs are very big businesses in themselves. The newly opened Sapphire Gentleman's Club is a $25 million investment that draws upon a pool of 6,000 dancers. In short, it seems the casinos have been using their political clout to shut down competition from the dance clubs. "This is life in the post-9/11 economic environment," says Hackett, sounding very much like a union economist. "It's all about the corporations shifting their revenue and profit stream away from gaming." Traditionally, the corporate owners of Vegas have made 60-70 percent of their profits from gambling and the rest from lodging, food and entertainment. But at the recent "American Gaming Summit," the CEO of the powerhouse MGM Mirage boasted of how his corporation has managed to invert that formula.

Not everyone agrees with Hackett that the big casinos are the lone motivating force behind the lap-dance suppression. "No question that in the end this is about economics," says Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada ACLU. But Peck thinks the pressure might also be coming from some of the bigger, politically connected dance clubs trying to squeeze out the smaller ones. He also argues that some of the county commissioners behind the ordinance have a less than healthy view of sex. "It's very difficult for me to delve into the heads of that crowd," he says with a laugh. "But I can certainly tell you they are obsessed with sex!" Of his alliance with Hackett, Peck says: "She's working with women who are working people and whose business is protected by the First Amendment. And that is where our interests and concerns coincide."

Hackett, meanwhile, has found fertile organizing territory among the dancers, who have also been feeling the economic pinch of the past two years. While in the salad days of the dot.com bubble a top dancer could count on maybe forty to fifty lap dances a night at $25 each, today she is lucky to do ten. "You might think that's a lot of money either way," says Hackett. "But we are exploited by everybody." Vegas's exotic dancers are treated as "independent contractors" by club owners, meaning not only are they not on the payroll, thus receiving no benefits or insurance, but they have to pay the owners as much as $70 a night just for the right to perform. Then there are payoffs to the bouncers, the deejays and sometimes even to the parking valets. And whatever money is generated by the dancers has to be split with the club owners, sometimes on a 50-50 basis.

The non-employee status of the dancers may eventually thwart unionization efforts, but in that case the LVDA could still exert influence as a "professional organization," perhaps on the model of the National Writers Union. The alliance is also close to concluding a deal with an insurance carrier so that dancer-members would be able to purchase healthcare at group rates. Once that deal is concluded, alliance membership could soar.

LVDA can already claim some partial victories. Vigorous lobbying, a few rallies and marches downtown, and oodles of local and even international publicity forced partial reversal of last summer's near-total ban on lap dancing. Some weeks ago Clark County officials amended the ordinance so that G-string tipping would once again be allowed. Hackett's group has also convinced local county and city officials to put on the back burner proposals to impose a stiff registration and licensing tax on individual dancers. Nevertheless, there's been a marked increase in arrests and ticketing of dancers since last summer's law went into effect. "All that law has done is turn us into criminals," says Hackett. So she's moving ahead with a new project: sponsoring a countywide measure, known as the Protection of Dancing Initiative, that will impose standardized regulation of the industry and reverse the more draconian aspects of the recent legislation. "Call it Christmas for dancers," says Hackett. To qualify these measures for the ballot, thousands of voter signatures will have to be gathered in the next few months. Hackett is confident. "We've already lined up squads of volunteer signature gatherers," she says mischievously. "And they are all hardbodies," she says, using the industry term that refers to the youngest dancers, usually 18-21 years old. "Now you tell me, honey," she says, "you think anyone walking the streets of Vegas is gonna say no to these girls?''

The signature campaign is now getting under way. But even before that, Hackett and her hard-core group of about fifty activists were already working around the clock, leafleting the dance clubs for new members, shopping around for union affiliation and plotting out the initiative campaign.

By night Hackett is still dancing at the Deja Vu Showgirls club. By day she is putting the finishing touches on what she's calling her own "Politics of Dancing" educational course -- designed, she says, to offer a quick political education to the average apolitical 19-year-old nude dancer. Hackett has already written a first primer. Skimming through the 7,500-word pamphlet, it's clear that the enforcers of decency at the County Commission and the casino interests behind them have taken on a formidable opponent. Hackett closes by saying she hopes her work can "help solidify the great natural allies of the American left and begin to heal the wounds inflicted by our natural enemies on the American right...the first basic facts to remember are these: There are far less rich people than poor people. And the rich generally want things to stay the way they are. The poor, by their very nature, want things to change, hopefully for the better."

Hackett has recently started working with a nucleus of nude dancers in Texas who are trying to organize. And eventually, she says, she'd like to have a national organization. "I've already got the name figured out. The United States Dancers Alliance. Or USDA," she says with a laugh, slapping her flank. "Get it?"

Marc Cooper is a contributing editor of The Nation and the author of "Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir" and "Roll Over Che Guevara: Travels of a Radical Reporter."