‘We Are Dancers’ Aims to Organize the Excluded

Melissa Gira Grant

RNC delegates are hardly the worst occupational hazard for exotic dancers, who regularly face wage theft and illegal classification as 'independent contractors' by club managers.

Address­ing a packed room of work­ing women and their sup­port­ers this past week at the Ford Foun­da­tion, SEIU Health­care 775NW Pres­i­dent David Rolf told them not to lis­ten to peo­ple who say they need to make their lives more like the lives of real work­ers.’ They are real workers.”

Rolf’s remarks came while prais­ing the work of the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance, which had just released a ground­break­ing study of domes­tic work­ers in the Unit­ed States. They have suc­ceed­ed in orga­niz­ing a work­force that many had thought impos­si­ble to orga­nize. It’s an assump­tion also com­mon­ly made about anoth­er exclud­ed” class of ser­vice work­ers: sex workers.

Like domes­tic work­ers, sex work­ers per­form labor that is often under­stood as just what women do (read: for free). They’ve had to fight just to con­vince peo­ple, even oth­er peo­ple in the labor and wom­en’s move­ments, that their work is work, and that they deserve con­trol over it. But where­as the domes­tic work­ers move­ment has enjoyed tremen­dous sup­port over the last 10 years, sex work­ers have large­ly been left to fight on their own.

One sec­tor of the sex trade has been the focus of U.S. labor orga­niz­ing: exot­ic danc­ing, or strip­ping. Dancers have staged union dri­ves, pick­ets, and strikes, and have won union­iza­tion at one shop, the Lusty Lady in San Fran­cis­co. The Lusty Lady is some­times con­sid­ered the né plus ultra of dancer activism — but it’s not the only mod­el out there. I say this as a proud, for­mer mem­ber of the Exot­ic Dancers Union: What worked in one shop is not going to work every­where, and like the domes­tic work­ers, if we hold out for a union, we might be wait­ing for a long time.

The same fac­tors that make danc­ing a flex­i­ble job also allow dance club man­age­ment to vio­late their work­ers’ rights. In most clubs, man­age­ment charge dancers stage fees” per shift, require dancers to share their tips with sup­port staff and man­age­ment, and ille­gal­ly clas­si­fy dancers as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors on the books while treat­ing them like employ­ees in the club. Over the last 15 years, hun­dreds of dancers have ben­e­fit­ed from class action law­suits brought against club own­ers, usu­al­ly by for­mer dancers who are less fear­ful of retal­i­a­tion. Last month saw one of the biggest set­tle­ments award­ed a dancer class — $13 mil­lion, in a suit against the Spearmint Rhi­no chain—but using law­suits to recov­er stolen earn­ings isn’t a viable option for most dancers. It’s also no replace­ment for organizing.

So where can dancers who want to orga­nize begin? As is the case for many ser­vice work­ers, the first step for dancers is to learn what rights they already have. But dancers may need dif­fer­ent or addi­tion­al resources than labor orga­niz­ers can offer them. Rather than view this as an obsta­cle, We Are Dancers, a project led by cur­rent and for­mer dancers in New York City, is using it an entry point for suc­cess­ful outreach.

As the first mem­bers of We Are Dancers came togeth­er, co-founder Rachel Aimee told me, we talked about how oth­er groups of dancers had orga­nized in the past.” Aimee is a for­mer dancer, as well as a writer and one of the founders of the influ­en­tial sex work mag­a­zine, $pread. She was famil­iar with dancers’ range of con­cerns and the his­to­ry of pre­vi­ous organizing.

Even though the Lusty Lady is awe­some, and there should be lots more dancer-owned clubs, it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly a mod­el that works for all the women in the strip­ping indus­try,” says Aimee. Work­ing on the books and own­ing and run­ning a club isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly what most dancers are look­ing for in the strip­ping industry.”

Instead, We Are Dancers looked to Dancers Are Spe­cial,” a project by the D.C.-based com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion Dif­fer­ent Avenues. As Aimee explained, it’s an approach that is more about harm reduc­tion, edu­ca­tion and com­mu­ni­ty build­ing, rather than try­ing to push a spe­cif­ic agen­da for how we should be chang­ing the industry.”

In Novem­ber We Are Dancers launched a com­pre­hen­sive guide for dancers on legal rights, health, and finance online. (They will soon release a trans­lat­ed web­site, in Span­ish, Russ­ian and Por­tuguese, as well as a print ver­sion of their resource guide to be dis­trib­uted in New York dance clubs.) In part­ner­ship with the Sex Work­ers Project at the Urban Jus­tice Cen­ter, which pro­vides client-cen­tered legal and social ser­vices to indi­vid­u­als who engage in sex work, We Are Dancers shares legal resources with dancers on labor vio­la­tions, includ­ing sex­u­al harass­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion, as well as on rights relat­ed to employ­ee and inde­pen­dent con­trac­tor sta­tus. They also offer refer­rals to under­stand­ing health care and finan­cial pro­fes­sion­als who dancers can turn to with­out fear­ing judg­ment or expo­sure. Dancers may be good at tak­ing care of oth­ers,” their guide states, but we also have to take care of ourselves.”

One crit­i­cal step for We Are Dancers is get­ting their out­reach mate­ri­als into the hands of dancers: some clubs won’t allow women to enter unescort­ed” by men and oth­ers charge steep cov­er fees for entry. Like any orga­niz­ers going into a new work­place, they’ll need to find a way to con­nect with peo­ple who are on the job with­out expos­ing them to scruti­ny from co-work­ers or man­age­ment. For this rea­son, they’d like to train and pay cur­rent and for­mer dancers as out­reach work­ers, so dancers have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to get con­nect­ed with their peers.

I hope that dancers will start to feel that they have more options for deal­ing with some of the prob­lem­at­ic aspects of work­ing in the indus­try,” Aimee says, and that they don’t just have to accept the way things are — whether that means mov­ing to a club that treats the dancers bet­ter, find­ing com­mu­ni­ty sup­port to help them deal with per­son­al rela­tion­ship issues, or call­ing Sex Work­ers’ Project to talk about options for tak­ing legal action against a club.”

Ulti­mate­ly, what We Are Dancers accom­plish­es will result from the direc­tion and sup­port they receive from the com­mu­ni­ty. We don’t real­ly have a plan for what kind of a group we want to form,” says Aimee. We are real­ly open to see­ing how it devel­ops and what there is a demand for. It feels more nat­ur­al and like­ly for com­mu­ni­ty-build­ing to devel­op out of pro­vid­ing a use­ful ser­vice or resource.”

We Are Dancers, like the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance, imag­ines they will be suc­cess­ful through build­ing net­works of dancers that reach beyond the bound­aries of one work­place. By first focus­ing on work­ers’ imme­di­ate needs, and build­ing pow­er through meet­ing work­ers where they are at, We Are Dancers has that same poten­tial to orga­nize so-called exclud­ed” work­ers — who are only as exclud­ed as oth­ers deval­ue their work.

Melis­sa Gira Grant has writ­ten for Slate, the Guardian (UK), the New York Observ­er and Jezebel, among oth­ers. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @melissagira.
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