Comes Naturally #43 (February 9, 1996):
Taking from Peter to Pay Paul: Bijou Group Theaters Put Dancers on Payroll, Then Cut Their Tips

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Spectator Magazine - February 9, 1996
(c) David Steinberg

Taking from Peter to Pay Paul: Bijou Group Theaters Put Dancers on Payroll, Then Cut Their Tips

A Victory for Dancers Turns Sour

The heat has been turned up in the ongoing conflict between lap dancers and the owners of three erotic theaters in San Francisco. On January 1, Bijou Group, Inc. -- owner of the Market Street Cinema and the New Century Theater -- reorganized the way it pays its dancers, complying with rulings by both the San Francisco Superior Court and the San Francisco Labor Commission that dancers must be paid as employees of the theaters, rather than as independent contractors as the owners have claimed for many years. The Labor Commission ruling came as a result of complaints filed by two dancers, Dawn Passar and Johanna Bryer, in 1993. Subsequent complaints have been filed by five other dancers as well. Each complainant becomes eligible to receive a court judgment for back wages and return of all management-imposed "stage fees" collected during their employment. Last October 5th, dancer Carla Williams was awarded a $52,600 judgment in one such settlement.

Acknowledging for the first time that dancers are indeed employees, Bijou Group has begun paying dancers $4.25 an hour minimum wage. Payment of hourly wages has been a core demand of the Exotic Dancer's Alliance, a group working for improvement in dancers' working conditions at the theaters. Bijou Group can also no longer legally collect the "stage fee" ($25 per shift) which was the initial grievance that led to the organization of the Alliance.

In addition to receiving an hourly wage, dancers as employees are now also entitled to unemployment insurance, social security, and to disability and workman's compensation for work-related injuries. They also may not be fired without cause and have the option, at any time, of voting for union representation. (Representatives of the Service Employees International Union have expressed interest in representing the dancers, if they so choose.)

Rather than absorb the cost of the new wages and the loss of the lucrative stage fees, Bijou Group has restructured the way dancers are paid for lap and wall dances with customers. Customers have traditionally paid for lap and wall dances, which continue to provide the overwhelming bulk of dancers' income, with cash tips. Declaring that "the party is now over," Bijou President Sam Conti reportedly announced to a meeting of dancers that customers would now purchase tickets for lap and wall dances from the theater, and then use the tickets as scrip to pay the dancers. Upon turning in the coupons, dancers keep 60% of their value, while management retains 40%. Dancers, in other words, are now effectively doing lap and wall dances on a commission basis, with management taking a 40% cut of what was previously their tips. Furthermore, dancers are now required to collect a minimum quota of the scrip ($120 for a four-hour shift, for example) or face disciplinary action from the theater.

According to dancers present at the meeting, Conti pleaded financial hardship as the reason for the change citing, among other things, the cost of bookkeeping the new payroll. According to those present at the meeting, Conti warned dancers not to be "greedy like pigs," cautioning dancers to "remember that pigs are slaughtered." (Bijou Group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on September 13, 1995. Court papers filed with the bankruptcy show that Bijou Group's average annual gross between 1992 and 1994 was $5.9 million. Bijou Group's reorganizational plan is pending in bankruptcy court, where it is being challenged by attorneys representing the dancers.)

Dancers emerged from the meeting with Conti outraged that management was now essentially going to keep 40% of their tips. (In addition to its 40% cut, management is also keeping 30% of the dancers' share of tips as withholding for income tax.) In place of the previous $25 per sevenhour -shift stage fee, dancers now face minimum payment to management of $48 for a shortened four-hour work shift, or $96 if they work eight hours. Dunning employees for a percentage of their tips is illegal. However putting dancers on a commission basis passes legal muster. "It's unethical but legal," admits Dawn Passar of EDA.

Habib Caruba, an owner of the Market Street Cinema, argues that the change to a commission arrangement for lap and wall dances was necessary because the theater could not afford to pick up the cost of the new wages and the loss of stage fee revenue. "Trust me," he said, "we're not making the money we were before. I would give anything to go back to the way it was before, but there's no possible way in hell we can go back to the old system."

Caruba claims to be sympathetic to the concerns of dancers about the new system. "If we don't have happy girls here," he professes, "we're going to have a lousy operation." He admits there was an initial hostile response from the dancers ("the first day of the new system we had only seven girls"), but says that over time more dancers are returning to work. (Whether this is because dancers have decided the new system is not so bad, or because they just don't have other employment options, is anyone's guess.) For the time being, the theater is limiting the number of dancers who work at any one time (using 50 women a day, instead of 80 previously), which Caruba claims is so that each dancer can do better financially.

Caruba also claims that the $120-per shift minimum is a general goal, not a hard-and fast quota to be met after each and every shift. Dancers who bring in $80 or $100 from time to time, he says, have nothing to worry about, as long as it doesn't happen too often. Dancers whose earnings are consistently under the minimum, he says, are suspended for three days ("so they can go home and think over what they're doing"), after which they would be terminated if the pattern continued.

"If a dancer is bringing in $30 or $40, day after day, maybe she should think about whether she really should be doing this kind of work. Maybe she should be a hostess or a cocktail waitress or something like that." According to Caruba, no dancers have been fired for not bringing in enough money from dances. Two dancers, he said, have been suspended, both of whom later returned to work.

Many dancers are refusing to work under the new arrangement. Some have gone to other lap dancing clubs [delete] (Mitchell Brothers; Crazy Horse; Gold Club; Stocks and Blondes). Others are not sure what they're going to do. When I visited the reconstituted Market Street Cinema in mid-January, there were far fewer dancers working than usual, and somewhat fewer customers as well. All the dancers I sat with expressed frustration with the new pay arrangement, but shrugged and adopted one form or another of what-can-I-do resignation. None of the dancers were in very good humor, to say the least.

Surprisingly, most of the lap dances are still being paid for with cash, rather than with the new "Bonus Bucks" scrip. When I asked dancers about this they said that although management at first insisted that they accept no cash, they later decided to let dancers take both scrip and cash, as long as they turned in a minimum of $120 scrip plus cash at the end of each four-hour shift. This is in conflict with what I was told as I paid my $15 cover charge to enter the theater. When I asked what posted signs referring to Bonus Bucks were about I was told that dancers would no longer accept cash tips for lap or wall dances, except during 15-minute topless free-for-all's that happen only a few times a day. I was also told erroneously that the policy was the result of a new tax law that had gone into effect at the beginning of 1996.

The Dancers Respond

Following the announcement of management's new policy, a series of meetings was called by the EDA to discuss what action the dancers could take in response. At the well-attended meetings, the possibility of striking and picketing the theaters was raised but rejected in favor of informational leafleting at the theaters until the issues being raised by dancers' attorneys with regard to Bijou's bankruptcy were resolved.

Dancers are claiming priority creditor status in the bankruptcy hearing, based on back wages and stage fees owed them by Bijou. At a disclosure hearing January 22, Bijou was ordered by the court to send Proof of Claim forms to current and former dancers, and to post public notices in newspapers advising dancers that they can file as creditors for the money owed them. Final court approval of Bijou's reorganization plan will involve consultation with all creditors of record.

On January 17th, a group of dancers distributed informational leaflets at both the Market Street Cinema and the New Century Theater. Many of the leafleters, fearing retribution from management, wore masks and scarves to hide their faces. A leaflet directed to customer, entitled "Do You Know Where Your Money Goes?", explained the workings of the new financial arrangement. "On behalf of the women working under these conditions," it continued, "we would urge you to consider where your money is going when you pay a cover charge or purchase a 'ticket' at the Market Street Cinema or Century Theatre -- it is not going to the women who are providing exotic entertainment for you!"

A separate leaflet directed toward dancers ("Dancers, Do You Know Your Rights?") encouraged dancers to file Proofs of Claim and become priority creditors at Bijou's bankruptcy hearing. "Bijou Group owes you minimum wage and stage fees," the flyer announced. "If enough dancers file and are confirmed as creditors we can vote against accepting Bijou's 'ticket' system to pay us back."

A half dozen leafleters moved freely in front of the Market Street Cinema, handing out material to both dancers and customers. The leafleters were received with a mixture of curiosity and support. At one point owner Habib Caruba came out and spoke politely with the protesters, encouraging them to come back to work at the theater. (When dancers working in the theater wanted to talk to the leafleters, however, they were kept by Caruba from going outside. "You're my employees now," he told them. "You can't come and go as you please any more.")

The shift manager at the New Century Theater, visibly uneasy with the three leafleters distributing flyers there, was considerably less hospitable. He told the two women (and one male supporter from the Harvey Milk Lesbian Gay Bisexual Democratic Club) that they could not hand out flyers while standing in front of the theater but had to either move to the side or keep walking back and forth on the sidewalk. His unease may have come from the fact that during the hour and a half the leafleters were at the theater, almost no one was going in.

When leafleters paused on the sidewalk in front of the theater to talk with friends and a reporter, the manager challenged them again, and threatened to call the police. "You guys are making my job real hard," he complained. "You're going to get me in trouble if my boss comes by and sees you in front of the theater."

"Well, that's as far as I'm going to go," one leafleter objected. "You can call the cops if you want to."

Call the cops he did, only to have the two distinctly underwhelmed responding officers explain rather pointedly that leafleters had the right to stand, walk, pass out flyers, or do whatever they wanted in front of the theater as long as they didn't try to physically prevent someone from entering the theater if they chose to do so. When a desk clerk from the theater began arguing with the women passing out flyers, one officer intervened on the dancers' behalf.

"I don't want these two group getting involved with each other," he insisted to the clerk. "You guys [from the theater] go inside and let them do what they're doing. As long as they don't break the law, everyone's happy."

The clerk continued to argue with the leafleters. "What use is it to hit on the customers?" he wanted to know.

"That's their right," the officer intervened, now more than a little irritated. "I just don't want any conflict between you two because if any laws are broken then we will come into it. Let me be very clear about that."

When the clerk continued to object, the cop became even more forceful. "Didn't you hear what I just said, sir?" he insisted angrily. "Stop arguing with these people and go back to work."

Of Big Issues and Small

In the workings of power, small victories like this are significant. Management works its will with dancers because dancers don't believe they have any power they can hold up to the power of the theater owners. Not only are they "just workers" -- easily fired and replaced -- but they are stigmatized workers as well, people whose work by its nature puts them outside the sphere of courtesy and respect that even most lowpaid employees know they are entitled to. When a stripper brings a claim before the San Francisco Labor Commission and is taken as seriously as any other complainant, it sends a message to all the other women who earn their living by taking off their clothes. It sends a message to all the club owners who make money off these women as well. The message is that strippers are real human beings with the same rights and privileges as everyone else.

In the game of economic pushing and shoving there are some rules of basic decency that apply, even when we're talking about people whose work involves putting their bodies on the line in some way that is related to sex. For various reasons, over the last ten years or so stripping has attracted a number of women who have the gumption to stand up and say, "I won't let you treat me like that," and the gall to seek various forms of redress from a cranky, but not altogether insensitive, legal system. The consequences have been far-reaching. In Oregon (as I reported in this column three months ago), in Alaska, in Texas, and now most decidedly in San Francisco as well (remember that the Mitchell Brothers are also defendants in a dancers' suit that could potentially cost them $7.5 million), legal decisions are changing the cavalier assumption by theater and club owners that they can pretty much do what they want with the women who work for them, because the women who work for them are socially branded as sexual misfits. This was the subtext of the little confrontation with the police at the Century Theater: The guys from the theater simply could not believe that dancers (with the support of the police) were actually getting to tell them what they could and could not do.

While the retaliatory tactics of the Bijou Group owners make clear that winning a court judgment does not immediately make the world rosy, the fact remains that in this particular power struggle dancers have a good deal more potential power than most of them imagine. They are consistently winning their legal actions in court. And the skittishness of management at the New Century Theater to a simple act of leafleting is noteworthy. Given the embarrassment many men feel at patronizing strip clubs in the first place, it doesn't take much of a fuss to turn theater customers away. A little stirring of the soup out in front and most guys seem to decide rather quickly to do something less attentiondrawing with their time and money.

If the response of customers to a few people handing out flyers at the New Century Theater was to unanimously avoid the place, a full-scale picket line by protesting dancers would surely keep the theaters all but devoid of customers. While this would cause temporary hardship for all dancers -- a hardship that dancers who wanted to continue working would certainly resent -- it wouldn't take long for the theater owners to understand that if they want their businesses to survive they'd better change their attitude toward the women who make those enterprises going concerns. And once that word got around the industry it would be a whole new ball game for everyone concerned, whether the issue was one of dollars and sense or one of simply being treated on an everyday level with common courtesy.

Tempest in a teapot? Maybe so. The people in Bosnia or in Guatemalan jails could care less whether lap dancers are ever treated respectfully by their employers, and there are certainly injustices in the world that far outweigh this one. But the issue of not allowing yourself to be treated as a second-class citizen because you find yourself in some kind of noncompliance with antisexual proprieties -- whether the transgression is about being gay, lesbian, bisexual, into s/m, into swinging, into pre-marital or extra-marital sex, or doing one form or another of sex work -- is a significant one with far-reaching consequences. And, of course, when it comes to sexual edge-cutting, everyone notices what goes on in San Francisco.

If and when dancers at the Bijou Group theaters decide to picket for real -- asking customers to support them by not patronizing the theaters whose employment practices are unfair, and seeking support from organized labor as well -- then it will be time for us guys who spend money on sexual entertainment to make a statement as to which side of this issue we're on.

The fact is that the interests of the customers and the dancers at the theaters are very much in common. The better dancers are treated by management, the better customers are treated when they patronize the theaters; no two ways about it. As June Cade, the relatively enlightened manager of the San Francisco and Seattle Lusty Lady Theaters notes, when dancers have good working conditions, everyone wins. "We protect them so they're in charge of the situation," she once explained. "It pays off for us; it pays off for the dancers; it pays off for the customers."

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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