Exotic Dancers Organizing
When most people think of strippers, they usually imagine lonely, uneducated, young women grinding the laps of businessmen in dark corners of Mafia-owned clubs. The term, "union organizers" is not one people would equate with strippers, but that's what dancers at the Lusty Lady theaters in San Francisco are.The Lusty Lady theaters in San Francisco and Seattle have always had a reputation for being one of the few, if not the only, women-managed exotic dance theaters in the country. The theater was started in 1979 by an entrepreneur in Seattle who experimented with making a movie house into a live nude peep show. The business was so successful that in 1982 the Lusty Lady opened in San Francisco's North Beach district. Many people have assumed the theater's dedication to hiring women managers to its being an "alternative feminist" strip club.This is not necessarily the case.TWO PROBLEMSWhen I was hired at the Lusty Lady in October 1994, I felt I had found the perfect job for a 22-year-old college student. The company offered flexible scheduling, and, since most of the women were students or had other jobs, the practice was mutually beneficial. The male support staff was friendly and never sexually harassed us; the dancers didn't have physical contact with customers because we were separated by glass. The pay was $11 to $24 an hour, depending on how quickly our raises came (dancers make about $250 a week), so we didn't have to hustle for our stage wages like dancers at other clubs. The theater had a nice "girl next door" image; dancers had meetings with management to discuss how to improve the show, and management also encouraged open communication. We even had hot chocolate, coffee and packets of soup provided for us on our ten minute breaks.Dancers were pretty content, or so management thought.A year later, one of the first problems I noticed was the dearth of Black women hired at the club. Out of 70 dancers, 10 were women of color, and only 5 were Black. Black women hardly worked together on stage -- they usually replaced each other.The company wanted variety (i.e., hair color, body size, energy level), but not too much variety. This racist policy was extended to other women of color as well. Black dancers also rarely performed in the Private Pleasures booth, a separate, more intimate, and usually more lucrative show. The starting rate is $5.00 for a three minute show, so dancers can earn up to $60 an hour.Other Black dancers and I took management up on their "open communication" policy, and inquired as to why Black dancers weren't scheduled in the booth. We were told that Black dancers made the company lose money because white customers would rather pay a quarter to see us on stage, as opposed to $5.00 in the booth.Enraged by their response, I felt that writing a petition was the only way to make them think seriously about how overtly racist the policy was, since "open communication" wasn't working. A week later I was reprimanded by management. They felt I had "jumped to extreme measures" and that a petition wasn't necessary. The only Black show director, Josephine, informed me that Black dancers have always done poorly in the booth, it was just a reality of the business, but she provided no evidence of this (later a support staff member told me that customers often inquired as to why Black women weren't in the booth). Josephine decided to schedule a meeting between Black dancers and June the following week.At the meeting we demanded to see documentation proving that Black dancers were bad for business. No such documentation was produced. In fact, June acted surprised that race was an issue at the Lusty Lady and conveniently looked to Josephine for answers. We then asked to see the Private Pleasures income of the Black dancers in Seattle to compare, and found that Black dancers there did pretty well in the booth. Fearing a discrimination suit, June decided to start rotating Black dancers in the booth. We agreed to this and the following week Black dancers were scheduled to work in the booth and dance together on stage. However, management prohibited the posting of political literature (such as petitions) in the dressing room.The issue that really motivated dancers to unionize, however, was one-way windows. Out of 13 windows, 3 were "one-way," meaning that the customer could see a dancer, but dancers couldn't see the customers -- only her own reflection. They were designed for the "shy" customer who wanted to be discreet, but the windows created problems for dancers and support staff.Customers were clandestinely videotaping dancers from behind the glass. The safety procedure was for dancers to phone support staff from the stage when they detected a camera, but this procedure didn't work too well. Support staff often couldn't catch customers with cameras. When support staff did confront customers, they risked their safety at the hands of men looking for a fight. Customers have also brought illegal drugs and weapons into the theater.The problem was raised at several dancer/support staff meetings with management. Despite dancers concerns with stalkers and family members exposure to nude photos of them, June was adamant about keeping the windows. She felt customers liked them and that they were good for business.The dancers suggested that management require customers to check their bags at the front desk, but June rejected the suggestion, saying that customers with sex toys would feel uncomfortable checking their bags.One dancer, Velvet (dancers use stage names to protect their identity), decided to have a conversation with June about the windows. When Velvet complained about the windows, she was told to "get another job" if she didn't like the one-ways. June told her the risk of exposure comes with the territory.THE LAST STRAWDisgusted with management's reaction, dancers Velvet, Tori, Jane, Kristin, Star and Octopussy wrote up a petition protesting the use of one-ways to circulate among dancers."We went to coffee shops, dancers' houses, met with other co-workers to explain about the problems of the one-ways. We even suggested that dancers shouldn't perform for one-ways, if they weren't eliminated soon. We tried communicating with management, and even argued that dancers would give sexier shows, which would be good for business, if the one-ways were removed, but June wouldn't listen to us," said Star, a dancer at the Lusty Lady for two years.After dancer organizers got 80 percent of our co-workers to sign the petition, we realized, like the Black dancers, we lacked legal recourse and June could fire us all if she wished. Fearing management's retaliation, Velvet and Kristen went to the Exotic Dancer's Alliance (EDA) meetings for advice.The EDA was started in March 1992 by dancers Dawn Passer and Johanna Breyer who both worked at the Market Street Cinema. In 1992 after several court battles, it was determined that all exotic dancers in San Francisco be employees. However, owners of the Market Street Cinema, along with other clubs, filed bankruptcy to avoid paying dancers back wages. Dancers at these clubs are paid minimum wage, forced to earn a quota of $200 per shift, and are coerced into prostitution to earn enough to pay their rent. Under the old system they paid a $25 stage fee and were able to keep tips from lap dancing. Breyer and Passer organized in response to sub-standard working conditions, health and safety issues, and the illegal payment of "stage fees" at the Cinema. EDA is a non-profit organization that works in conjunction with the prostitutes' rights organization COYOTE (Cast Off Your Old Tired Ethics).When Velvet and Kristen went to EDA, they told the dancers they would send a letter to the Lusty Lady to show their support, but we knew we needed to take stronger action, so we decided to seek the representation of a union, and create our own chapter, The Exotic Dancer's Union.WHY SEIU LOCAL 790?In the past, EDA had worked with SEIU Local 790, seeking their advice on handling unfair labor practices, and labor code violations. SEIU Local 790 has almost 18,000 members in four counties of the San Francisco Bay Area: San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Mateo. Some of the workers the union represents include: nurses at San Francisco General Hospital; San Francisco United School District; San Francisco Airport; City Hall; Mental Health; Custodians; Social Services; and clerical workers for the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART). It is the largest AFL-CIO union in California and the fastest growing union in the country.The union was very supportive of dancers' efforts to unionize and agreed to represent us. Two Local 790 field representatives were assigned to work with us.Dancer organizers secretly circulated union cards via dancers' lockers. On June 2, 1996, we announced at a dancer/staff meeting that 80 percent of us had signed up for union representation. June refused to acknowledge the union, but made her first concession: she removed the one-way windows.Organizers then petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to set an election date, since a majority of the workers voted in favor of union representation, and management was legally forced to recognize the union and negotiate a contract.UNIONIZING BEGINSJune's response to dancers unionizing was to hire one of San Francisco's most notorious union-busting law firms: Littler Mendolson, Fastiff, Tichy and Mathiason, which cost the company about $300 an hour. Management also relaxed its hiring criteria (they usually don't hire women with tattoos or body piercings), and over hired new dancers in an effort to dilute the union's majority. The union filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) against management for sandbagging the bargaining unit. The NLRB eventually ruled in management's favor.On June 27, 1996 the NLRB held a hearing to determine which employees would constitute the union's bargaining unit; whether or not to include employees on leave, on call and support staff (cashiers, janitor, security). At this point support staff were unsure if they wanted to be part of the unit, because they felt their concerns and relationship with management was different from the dancers. At the hearing, management's lawyers argued that support staff be included in the bargaining unit, hoping that their indifference would drive them to vote no. In the end, most of the support staff voted for the union.The NLRB decided at a hearing on July 5 that workers on leave, and workers who work an average of four hours a week, be able to vote in the election. In the weeks preceeding elections, management called employees to a series of meetings to persuade us to vote against the union. June claimed that she felt betrayed and hurt by our actions, and that a union would destroy "communication." She reminded us that the Lusty Lady was like family, that the theater was different from other strip clubs because we don't have to hustle for stage wages or touch the customers. She told dancers the union would change all the great things they loved about the Lusty Lady (i.e., flexible scheduling). These anti-union tactics actually drove some ambivalent dancers to vote "yes."We realized that candy, coffee, smiles, and positive evaluations replaced health insurance, paid sick leave, vacation time, guaranteed hours, higher wages, job security, and a consistent discipline policy.The Lusty Lady has a history of taking dancers off the schedule who they feel are overweight or somehow "unattractive," though their weight may be the same as it was when hired. Management also reduces senior dancers' shifts when they hire new dancers, thus paying new dancers the bottom wage of $11 an hour and making it harder for senior dancers to reach top wages. Raises are routinely withheld for vague reasons. We are often told we don't smile enough on stage (many dancers have had their raises withheld over four months after being told they didn't smile enough), and that our costumes aren't sexy enough (management does not issue dancers loans to buy new costumes).Dancers weren't falling for June's plea for a "second chance." The Lusty Lady's reputation as a supportive "women friendly" strip club was slowly crumbling.We received tremendous support from influential organizations all over the Bay Area. Including: Margo St. James, candidate for supervisor in San Francisco and co-founder of the prostitutes' rights organization, COYOTE; Act Up AIDS Coalition; The Harvey Milk Club; Rhodessa Jones (founder and director of the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women); Tom Amiano of the Board of Supervisors, Dick Meister, labor historian and writer, and police commissioner Pat Norman, who threatened to revoke the Lusty Lady police permits if management continued to subject union organizers to unfair disciplinary action. We even received support from the unions some of our customers belonged to: Longshoremen, Trades, and Teamsters.On August 30, 1996 the Lusty Lady made history as the second strip club in the country to unionize, with a 57-15 vote.In some cases the media misquoted us as being the first strip club to unionize. But the first strip club to unionize was Pacer's in San Diego. However, Pacer's union, Hotel Management, Employee Management, Local 30, negotiated an open clause in its contract. Open shop means there's no requirement that employees join the union, so the club recruited workers and discouraged them from joining the union and were able to decertify the union. The dancers at the Lusty Lady will probably try to negotiate a union shop clause in our contract, which will require every employee to join the union, to prevent a situation like Pacer's from occurring.OTHER STRIP CLUBSWe received enormous support from other dancers, including those at the Lusty Lady in Seattle who wanted information on how we unionized. What many people don't realize is that the Lusty Lady is an anomaly in the scene of strip clubs. "It will take a while before most clubs in San Francisco are at the level of the Lusty Lady, even before it unionized" said Daisy Anarchst, dancer organizer."We have to get city agencies to bring clubs in line with labor laws, meaning the women have to first be given employee status. As it stands now women are called "employees" but they are forced to pay an illegal stage fee to work -- so they're not really employees."Daisy says women at other clubs want to unionize, and see the Lusty Lady as a great inspiration. "We now have police commissioner Pat Norman on our side, so hopefully things will change at other clubs soon. Norman is against prostitution, however we try to explain to her that we see prostitution as a civil rights issue. Women should have the right to choose whether they want to prostitute. She understands our concerns in stopping coerced prostitution in strip clubs. I'm glad she's supporting us, so many people don't take issues of sex-workers seriously."Sex-workers from all over the world have called our union to say our struggle is an inspiration to them. Hopefully our experience will be a blueprint for social awareness among people about issues affecting sex workers. People shouldn't view sex workers in the hoary light of moral conflict or as dumb bimbos, but understand our struggle for respect and basic job protections as a feminist, health and labor issue.Brooks has worked at the Lusty Lady for two years, and is on the union contract negotiating committee. She holds a BA in Women's Studies from San Francisco State University and is currently working on a book about men and women of color sex workers. The Exotic Dancer's Alliance is at 1442 A Walnut Street, Suite 187, Berkeley, CA 94709; 415-995-4745.