Jane may appear to be your average sex worker. When her hours were cut at another job, she decided stripping was the logical answer for some extra cash. Little did she know she would become the key organizer of the first and only Exotic Dancers Union last April at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady Theater.
The Lusty Lady looks like your garden-variety peep show — black walls, scarlet floral carpeting, scintillating nudity behind any of twelve red-painted doors — but unlike other strip clubs in San Francisco, the Lusty Lady prides itself on a loyal family-style management, run by the daughter of the man who founded the company. Not a place where you’d expect to find labor strife.
But workers complained this so-called “family” played favorites. Managers would let tardies or absences slide from favored dancers, while other dancers were docked pay. Although a dancer might still be considered sexy by patrons, she could be taken off the schedule without warning. “The criteria for making one dancer their favorite was completely subjective,” says Jane. “It was familial only in the sense that it was patronizing and the management treated us like children.” Jane says she saw a need for a union the day she started.
Isis, another Lusty Lady performer, recalls: “The system of favorites was very complicated. For example, there was never more than one woman of color on stage at a time, and busty blonds always got more shifts.”
Managers insisted that their regular customers grew weary of ogling the same dancers: “It’s the company’s philosophy that the customers want to see new performers — so many regulars want to see new performers,” explains personnel manager Shannon. “Some are dynamite no matter how long they are here,” she admits; nevertheless, during contract negotiations management proposed they be allowed to fire workers after a year and a half without just cause.
Isis puts it bluntly: “They thought we were less valuable, old, used-up, loose pussy.”
The peep show is a blunt business. Four or five women dance, breasts and genitalia exposed, in a tiny room surrounded by a dozen peep booths; as patrons in the booths feed quarters into a slot, a window blind rises to reveal the dancers. According to Jane, the job qualifications are simple: “You’re naked, you’re female, you can do the job. These guys are looking at a 3- or 4-square-inch part of your body while they’re masturbating. If you keep him spending money, you’ve done your job.”
That job, dancers say, was made a lot harder by Lusty Lady management. Not only did dancers’ hours change seemingly at random, but they didn’t accumulate sick time, so they often worked while ill if they were unable to trade shifts or find replacements. One dancer even had to work while recovering from a miscarriage. Little sympathy was shown for transportation or child care crises. Forming a union, says Jane, “was not about getting more money. It was about rights and protection and job security.”
Jane, of course, is not her real name, but she’s not afraid of Grandma finding out she gyrates for a living — Jane guards her real identity to protect herself from being blacklisted from strip clubs in the future, and from possible violence by other club owners who are hostile to unions. (None of the women quoted in this story would give their full names for reasons of personal security, a practice common in the sex industry.)
Aside from her roles as exotic dancer, organizer, and contract negotiator, Jane is also a writer and preschool teacher who at age 24 realized she was making only a fraction of what she would make as an exotic dancer. “This is the only business where women make a lot more than men do. I’m going to use that and exploit it to my advantage.”
Jane says that at every job she’s held — including switchboard operator, reporter, and waitress — she has wanted to form a union. This is the first time the fantasy has materialized.
The straw that broke the dancer’s back was the one-way mirrors installed in three of the peep show windows. “Customers would bring in video equipment and make porn videos without our compensation and without our consent,” Jane recalls. Jane began to organize in the spring of 1996; when management heard that 80 percent of their workers had signed union cards, they immediately took out the one-ways, hoping to change the dancers’ minds about unionizing.
When the union drive persisted, the real battle began. “In the beginning the management held meetings and cried and told us we’d betrayed them,” Jane explained. When that proved unsuccessful, “they really cracked down.” Management’s intimidation tactics included a lock-out, threats, and firings. Jane was one of the first to be fired. Two days later she demanded justification for the firing. “The manager backed down and rehired me.”
At election time, everyone voted yes for the union except for 15 dancers, four of whom had applied for management jobs. Since roughly 65 dancers and 15 janitors and cashiers signed the contract with the Service Employees International Union Local 790 in April, all violations to the contract have been settled without arbitration. In one incident post-union, a private booth had just been painted with toxic paint. While the management expected the dancer assigned to the booth to work, she was unable to withstand the nauseating paint fumes. Like any ordinary union service employee, she filed a grievance on the grounds that the management violated the health and safety of the worker — and she won.
Now Jane spends more time taking on strip club managers than taking off her clothes. She gives advice to dancers all over the country who want to unionize — campaigns are now underway in Philadelphia, Anchorage, and North Hollywood, Calif. She’s also working on a manual for strippers, and it’s not about how to shake your booty — it’s “a crash course in labor organizing.”