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Tuesday, Jan 20, 2015, 12:30 pm

‘We Deserve Respect’: Strippers Seek $100,000 Settlement From Portland Vegan Strip Club

BY F. Amanda Tugade

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The strip club famous for its commitment to animal welfare stands accused of abusing its workers.   (Alicia Rose / Flickr)

Two dancers are raising hell at Casa Diablo, Portland’s famous “vegan strip club,” over what they say is wage theft and management's failure to respond to their complaints of alleged harassment.

Former Diablo dancers Matilda Bickers and Amy Pitts filed a suit on January 11 in the U.S. District Court. Bickers and Pitts are each seeking about $100,000 from the strip club’s manager, Johnny Zuckle.

In an interview with Willamette Week, Bickers claims Casa Diablo charged her and other dancers “for every 30 minutes they were late to work,” “missing a shift” or “not undressing quickly enough onstage.” Bickers says she ended up owing her employer about $500, which affirmed her decision to quit.

WW reported that because most dancers in Portland are considered independent contractors, clubs are not obligated to pay them minimum wage or overtime—a strategy increasingly common for employers attempting to avoid full responsibility for their employees. And dancers are not entitled to paid sick leave or receive unemployment benefits and protection against harassment cases.

Bickers told WW she and other dancers have been “mistreat[ed]” by customers and Casa Diablo bouncers. 

Zuckle, who denied any case of harassment, said not only that the "whole lawsuit is frivolous and ridiculous,” but the dancers knew that being independent contractors meant they were “in charge of their own business.”

Bickers disagreed. “It’s easy to forget that actually, what’s happening isn’t normal and would be seriously condemned in any other line of work. But it is work. It’s hard work. We deserve at the very least a basic level of respect.” 

Bickers and Pitts are not in the fight alone. Dancers in IllinoisNew YorkNevada and Texas have filed against strip clubs for unpaid wages and, in some cases, received hefty settlements. Many have focused on similar issues of independent contractor status. San Francisco’s The Lusty Lady, which featured the country’s only unionized peep show, was long seen as a model of successful sex worker struggle, but the show closed down last year—and, according to some accounts, the attempts to fight back against dancer exploitation weren’t perfect.

Labor agitation does appear to be increasing in strip clubs across America. And Bickers’s argument—that sex work is “hard work” deserving respect—has gained significant traction in recent years.

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Amanda Tugade is a Fall 2014 editorial intern.

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