In Search of Stripper Solidarity

Can professional dancers find workplace justice?


Union workers at San Francisco's Lusty Lady.

The last time I danced at a strip club in Man­hat­tan, I paid an $80 house fee” to work. I was shout­ed at for slouch­ing in my seat and for eat­ing my lunch at the wrong time, and I went home with $40 less than I’d arrived with. After work­ing in this exploita­tive indus­try for many years, I want­ed to orga­nize to improve work­ing con­di­tions for strip­pers. But when I reached out to oth­er activists who had been involved in cam­paigns to pro­tect dancers’ rights, the over­whelm­ing response I got was: Don’t do it!”

By law, independent contractors can't unionize. More insidiously, dancers' endless competition for tips undermines the kind of worker solidarity necessary for any sort of workplace organizing.

They had a point.

When dancers at the Lusty Lady, a San Fran­cis­co peepshow, suc­cess­ful­ly union­ized in 1997, they put strip­pers’ labor rights on the map. Third-wave fem­i­nists across the world rushed to hold up the Lusty Lady as proof that sex work doesn’t have to be exploita­tive. The union­iza­tion dri­ve and sub­se­quent tran­si­tion of the club into a work­er-owned coop­er­a­tive was seen by many as the start of a move­ment in which strip­pers would put a stop to the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry prac­tices that plague the industry. 

Fif­teen years lat­er, the Lusty Lady remains the only union­ized strip­ping venue in the coun­try, and work­ing con­di­tions in most clubs have got­ten worse, with dancers pay­ing up to $300 a shift to work and often going home in debt to their employ­ers. Mean­while, dancers at the Lusty Lady have con­tracts and receive a stan­dard wage instead of hav­ing to com­pete for tips. But rather than look­ing to the Lusty Lady as a bea­con of progress, most strip­pers balk at the thought of work­ing for an hourly wage instead of hus­tling for tips.

I have nev­er met any­one who lap-dances for any rea­son oth­er than to make as much mon­ey in as lit­tle time as pos­si­ble,” says Tem­pest, a dancer who was involved in the Lusty Lady union dri­ve and now believes the effort may have been coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. She pos­es a ques­tion that strip­pers can’t afford to ignore: Is union­iz­ing strip clubs con­ducive to mak­ing a profit?”

For most of my strip­ping career, I worked at a club in Queens, N.Y., that didn’t charge house fees. In 2008, when a new man­ag­er insti­tut­ed a house fee, my cowork­ers and I wrote a let­ter ask­ing man­age­ment to stop charg­ing the fee. Most of the dancers at the club signed it, so we fig­ured we’d be safe – they couldn’t fire all of us, right? Of course, the own­er turned out to be smarter than we’d thought: He retal­i­at­ed by ban­ning us from sell­ing lap-dances, thus tak­ing away our pri­ma­ry means of mak­ing money. 

War broke out between the dancers who had signed the let­ter and those who hadn’t, with the lat­ter accus­ing us of being bad at our jobs and ruin­ing the club for the girls who knew how to make mon­ey. Many dancers, includ­ing those who had signed the let­ter, left to work at clubs that charged high­er house fees but offered the free­dom to hus­tle and sell dances. If you didn’t want to pay the house fee, get anoth­er job!” one dancer screamed at me. 

She didn’t need to yell for long. A few weeks lat­er, the own­er fired me and anoth­er dancer, whom he took to be the insti­ga­tors, and re-intro­duced the house fee. I was left feel­ing that those who had warned me against orga­niz­ing in strip clubs were right: Most strip­pers are will­ing to tol­er­ate labor vio­la­tions in exchange for the rel­a­tive free­dom to pur­sue quick cash in an unreg­u­lat­ed environment. 

Who wants to be an employee?

Tem­pest says that the Lusty Lady union­iza­tion dri­ve made things worse for dancers on a wider scale by dis­cour­ag­ing club own­ers from clas­si­fy­ing dancers as employ­ees. In a sense, what we said to club own­ers when we orga­nized was If you make us employ­ees, empow­er us, and give us bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, we can – and prob­a­bly will – use it against you.’ To poten­tial club own­ers, what hap­pened at the Lusty Lady could eas­i­ly be seen as an exam­ple of what not to do.”

Whether or not the indus­try-wide shift toward clas­si­fy­ing dancers as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors was a result of fear of Lusty Lady-style union­iza­tion, it has cer­tain­ly made it more dif­fi­cult for dancers to orga­nize for labor rights. By law, inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors are unable to union­ize. More insid­i­ous­ly, dancers’ end­less com­pe­ti­tion for tips under­mines the work­er sol­i­dar­i­ty nec­es­sary for any sort of work­place organizing.

But while inde­pen­dent con­trac­tor sta­tus has deliv­ered a major set­back to the strip­pers’ rights move­ment, dancers have not giv­en up – they have mere­ly shift­ed the bat­tle site to courts. Ever since club own­ers fig­ured out they could make more mon­ey by clas­si­fy­ing dancers as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors and charg­ing them house fees, dancers across the coun­try have been chal­leng­ing the legal­i­ty of this prac­tice by fil­ing law­suits against indi­vid­ual clubs, claim­ing that they are employ­ees, not inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors, and as such should not be pay­ing to work. Results of these law­suits vary, but in the major­i­ty of cas­es, courts rule in favor of dancers, who are award­ed com­pen­sa­tion for the house fees they’ve paid out over the years, as well as the back wages to which they are enti­tled as employees. 

As yet, these law­suits haven’t led to wide­spread change in the strip club indus­try, but the cumu­la­tive effect may be begin­ning to force club own­ers to pay atten­tion. In July 2009, a Mass­a­chu­setts state court ruled in favor of a dancer named Luci­enne Chaves, who filed a class action law­suit against King Arthur’s Lounge in Chelsea, Mass., lead­ing to a slew of dancers across the state fil­ing sim­i­lar law­suits against oth­er strip clubs. Clubs across the state then began vol­un­tar­i­ly switch­ing over to clas­si­fy­ing strip­pers as employ­ees in an attempt to lim­it poten­tial damages. 

But not all Mass­a­chu­setts dancers are hap­py with the change. Writ­ing in The Dai­ly Caller, Pussy Per Se, a strip­per who has danced in clubs across New Eng­land, says: I was an inde­pen­dent con­trac­tor, work­ing at half a dozen clubs, mak­ing good mon­ey. It was a per­fect job for a sin­gle mom. I could arrange my sched­ule around my son’s, … I might work a sin­gle club for weeks, …. [o]r I might take a break to go on a road trip with anoth­er dancer, reap­ing the ben­e­fit of being new girls’ at a dis­tant club.” But as an employ­ee, she writes, she has lost this free­dom in exchange for the secu­ri­ty of being a wage slave.”

Pussy Per Se has a point, but she’s miss­ing part of the pic­ture. The last time I worked in a Man­hat­tan club, I was not the only one reg­u­lar­ly going home in debt; I was not even in the minor­i­ty. Friends work­ing in clubs across the city report sim­i­lar sto­ries of build­ing up debt to the point that, when they final­ly have a good night, they end up pay­ing most of it back to the club in the form of back-house fees. 

You could argue that dancers couldn’t be mak­ing that lit­tle or they would have quit already, but get­ting a day job is not an option for every­one. Many strip­pers are undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants; oth­ers have no for­mal qual­i­fi­ca­tions or expe­ri­ence out­side of the sex indus­try. For these women, los­ing mon­ey to the club three nights a week and then land­ing a decent cus­tomer and going home with $250 on the fourth night is bet­ter than noth­ing. Mean­while, clubs col­lect their house fees from dancers and win every time.

Learn­ing from the Lusty Lady

So, what to do with an indus­try in which none of us want to give up our inde­pen­dence, but the cost of inde­pen­dence is bleed­ing us dry? There may be a third way between union­iza­tion dri­ves and law­suits brought by indi­vid­ual strip­pers. I recent­ly heard about a club in Cal­i­for­nia that seems to be strik­ing a bal­ance between free­dom and fair labor prac­tices. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, it is owned and run by two for­mer dancers. Dancers at Ruby’s (club name changed at the request of sources) pay house fees like inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors. What makes them dif­fer­ent from dancers at most clubs is that they are actu­al­ly treat­ed like inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors, which essen­tial­ly means no schedules. 

The idea of run­ning a strip club where dancers can come and go as they please may sound like a logis­ti­cal night­mare, but Ruby’s appears to be mak­ing it work. Man­age­ment comes up with incen­tives to encour­age dancers to work at cer­tain times,” says Megan, a dancer at Ruby’s. If you sched­ule your­self ahead of time you pay $20 instead of $30. If they see there aren’t enough girls work­ing, they text dancers to try to get more to come in.” Dancers and man­agers nego­ti­ate these rules togeth­er at reg­u­lar meetings.

Unlike the Lusty Lady, the demo­c­ra­t­ic style of man­age­ment at Ruby’s is moti­vat­ed by prac­ti­cal­i­ty, rather than ide­al­ism. The own­ers know that if they’re going to clas­si­fy dancers as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors, they need to treat them like inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors or risk get­ting sued. At one point, there was a threat of trou­ble when the man­age­ment want­ed dancers to work longer hours. We said, If you do that, we’re not going to come in at all,’ ” Megan says. Even­tu­al­ly they nego­ti­at­ed a deal so that dancers who work the whole shift pay a low­er house fee. The eas­i­est way to get strip­pers to fol­low the rules is to have strip­pers make the rules,” Megan says.

After learn­ing about Ruby’s, I began to won­der if dancers across the coun­try should go to court to be treat­ed as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors, rather than suing to be paid like employ­ees. It could be a com­pro­mise that is bet­ter for every­one. Then again, it’s hard to imag­ine the suits who run cor­po­rate chains like Pent­house sit­ting down with hun­dreds of dancers to col­lec­tive­ly nego­ti­ate the rules on a reg­u­lar basis.

When the Lusty Ladies got the strip­per labor rights move­ment rolling in 1997, they had a vision of how things were going to go. Today, most dancers aren’t psy­ched for union­iza­tion, but they sure as hell aren’t psy­ched to main­tain the sta­tus quo, either. Giv­en the num­ber of law­suits that are pop­ping up across the coun­try, strip club own­ers would do well to take steps to address ram­pant lev­els of exploita­tion. If they don’t, they could find them­selves being forced to change the way they do busi­ness – in ways that may not actu­al­ly ben­e­fit the major­i­ty of dancers.

Rachel is a writer and activist liv­ing in Brooklyn.
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