Comes Naturally #58 (May 2, 1997):
Lusty Lady Dancers Ratify Union Contract; Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality Regional Conference Report

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Spectator Magazine - May 2, 1997
(c) David Steinberg

Lusty Lady Dancers Ratify Union Contract; Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality Regional Conference Report

Honoring Sexual Labor

Employees at San Francisco's Lusty Lady Theater voted nearly unanimously April 4th to accept the work contract negotiated with theater management by the Exotic Dancers Union, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union, AFL-CIO, Local 790. The contract, which covers some 30 cashiers and janitors at the theater as well as 70-75 dancers, stands as the only union contract for strippers in the U.S., according to SEIU representative Stephanie Batey. Batey negotiated the contract on behalf of the SEIU. Theater management was represented in the negotiations by Colleen Baldwin, president of the Lusty Lady corporate board of directors and by Lusty Lady Acting General Manager Darrell Davis. Davis took over as acting director when longtime Lusty Lady General Manager June Cade retired in March.

After a year of union organizing, and five months of often bitter contract negotiations, the EDU contract provides guaranteed work shifts for dancers, protection against arbitrary discipline and termination, automatic hourly wage increases, sick days, a contracted procedure for pursuing grievances against management, and removal of one-way mirrors from peep show booths. Cashiers and janitors won increased wages and improved health benefits.

Dancers at the Lusty Lady began their organizing efforts after dancers became incensed about clandestine photographing and videotaping being conducted by customers through one-way mirrors that were installed in some of the peep show private booths. The mirrors enabled customers to photograph dancers without the dancers' knowledge or consent. Concern among the dancers grew to alarm when some photographs taken through the one-way mirrors began to surface on the Internet.

Confronted with dancers' concerns about the photographs and subsequent demands that the one-way mirrors be removed, the theater initially responded by dismissing dancer concerns as frivolous. Upset dancers approached the SEIU. Once they were able to convince union representatives they were serious in their desire to form a union, organizing began in earnest.

"They had a huge organizing committee that was very tightly organized, very disciplined," explains SEIU's Batey. "And they came in with signed cards from 90% of the employees which meant that we had an excellent chance of organizing there successfully. At that point we began saying, 'Hey, these women are serious. And they have a right to a union just like any other workers.'"

Working with the Lusty Lady dancers was definitely an eye-opening experience for people at SEIU, according to Batey. "Before we began organizing at the Lusty," she says, "people had no knowledge of the demographics of the dancers. We found that there were lots of college students, women who were well-educated politically as well as academically, who were articulate feminists, who were concerned about the larger issues, who addressed issues from a societal viewpoint."

In an election last August, employees at the Lusty Lady voted overwhelmingly for union representation. The theater responded by engaging the legal services of Littler, Mendelson, a law firm widely known for effectively and aggressively fighting unions. Negotiations proceeded slowly, much to the frustration of the SEIU and the dancers, as Littler, Mendelson serially designated five separate attorneys as their negotiating representatives. When the theater fired one dancer (Summer, a single mother), allegedly to intimidate other dancers, the women responded angrily with a wildcat strike and protest outside the theater. A management lockout of all dancers for two-and-a-half days hurt the protesters financially, but failed to end the protest or break the unity of the dancers. Finally the theater relented, rehired the fired dancer, and began negotiating with the union seriously.

While the idea of a union of sex workers may seem more titillating than serious to many, the groundbreaking SEIU contract has drawn serious attention, if not necessarily support, from both local and national press. An April 12, 1997, San Francisco Chronicle editorial acknowledged that "poor working conditions exist wherever you find them..... The new members of Service Employees International Union, Local 790, have achieved a breakthrough. They have called attention to a line of work that needs vigilant oversight and fair treatment of its employees." The San Francisco Examiner, in an editorial a day later, was more condescending about what it described as "the unprecedented coupling of two historic San Francisco movements -- labor and, er, the pelvis." But even the Examiner bestowed its uneasy respect by acknowledging that "there's something amazing about a labor union for strippers." According to Batey, there has been an outpouring of interested response from the national press, including The New York Times, The Economist, Associated Press, and United Press International.

Batey notes that since contract ratification, Lusty owners have been cooperative with the union and seem anxious to re-educate their managers in the whys and wherefores of the new industrial order. Show managers who couldn't believe that they are now required to give union representatives the opportunity to talk with each new person hired have been reminded that this is indeed part of the new contract. An interim grievance procedure provided for in the contract has been working well, according to Batey, and the first post-ratification meeting to deal with grievances is being scheduled -- at the theater's initiative, which Batey also sees as a good sign. Federal mediators are being brought in to train both management and employees on the nuts and bolts of the new contractual arrangement, also at the theater's request.

While the Lusty Lady contract may be the first contemporary labor agreement in the U.S. to cover strippers, it is unlikely to be the last. Before the San Francisco contract vote -- indeed, even before the dancers had voted in favor of union representation -- the Lusty Lady's other theater in Seattle had taken note of the changing labor landscape. The theater began encouraging dancers to attend company-sponsored employee meetings on paid company time. Non-union employee representatives elected at these meetings were recognized by theater management as spokeswomen for the group, presumably to show dancers that the theater was interested in being responsive to their concerns and to discourage them from unionizing.

Following ratification of the San Francisco contract, members of the San Francisco organizing committee traveled to Seattle where they met with Lusty Lady dancers and explained to them for the first time, from the dancers' perspective, what the new union and contract were about, and how the new agreement would affect dancers in Seattle. In particular, they assured the Seattle dancers that the traditional arrangement, under which dancers could travel back and forth between the two theaters, working at both, would be maintained. Seattle theater management responded to the visit from the San Francisco organizers with an immediate, unsolicited, dollar-an-hour pay increase for all dancers. A controversial theater policy requiring dancers with tattoos or piercings to cover their body decorations while performing was also revoked.

San Francisco dancers at the Market Street Cinema and New Century Theaters have reportedly approached SEIU about possible union representation, and Batey says she has heard of possible union organizing of strippers in Houston, Texas, as well.

An Historical Footnote

If SEIU Local 790 may not be destined to last long as the newest sex worker union in the U.S., neither is it the oldest. According to documents displayed at the Sex Work Art Exhibit at the recent International Conference on Prostitution, "Whores' Union No. 125" was organized by prostitutes in Butte, Montana, on June 1, 1905, in response to "the recent arrivals of whores from France." Rather than allowing an influx of cheap foreign labor to "materially injure our legitimate profession by low prices," the local prostitutes "resolved at the last regular meeting of this union" to abide by a common set of fees for various sexual service. These ranged from $1.50 for a "common old fuck" or "bear fashion," to $6 for "all night, with use of towels and rose water." "Back scuddle or dog fashion" was $1.75; "pudding jerking, tasting or sucking" was $2; "wheelbarrow fashion" was $2.75; "three up, one down, two shots" was $4; and "all night, well crammed" was $5.

If anyone knows what "three up, one down, two shots" is, please let me know. That's a completely new one to me.

The SSSS Western Regional Family Reunion

This year's western region conference of my favorite sexological association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, took place April 3-6 in Newport Beach. Skillfully organized by Program Chair Marty Klein and Conference Chair Dave Hall, the meeting focused on the topic, "Sexual Desire: What Do We Know? What Do We Need to Know?"

Now as I probably say every year in my report on this conference, the SSSS western region is one of my favorite communities of sex-positive, thoughtful, inquisitive, generally playful people. I think of the group more as a family than as your typical association of academic professionals -- complete with a generous assortment of eccentric uncles and aunts, nephews and cousins, a healthy undercurrent of scandals and gossip, long-standing ritual traditions and gestures, and even longerstanding family alliances and feuds. All within the uniquely pressurecooking context that my mother used to call Family Feeling -- the overriding sense that, no matter how much we all drive each other crazy, there is still something thicker than water, that we have in common, something important that binds us irrevocably together and distinguishes us from everyone else. In the case of the SSSS-WR family the cementing glue is something about wanting to set the sexual record straight, about being more than a little intrigued with sex in the first place and having a strong desire to think and wonder and know more about it, about trying to create a little sexual sanity in a world that is generally and increasingly nuts when it comes to matters relating to sex.

Now, having a supportive community is acknowledged as important in many aspects of life, like work, politics, ethnicity, or religion. But having a community of support is also important when it comes to sex, and particularly important when one's sexual practices, attitudes, fantasies, or predilections tend to isolate one from the Designated Community-At-Large, as seems to be true for an increasingly numerous group of people, Yours Truly long included.

And so it was particularly confirming for me when I found myself quickly and enthusiastically welcomed into the SSSS-WR fold, eight years ago, right after my first sexual book, Erotic by Nature, was published. I was invited by Marty Klein to put together an extensive show of photographs from Erotic by Nature, as an art exhibit at that year's regional conference. Unsure how the big bad world was going to receive my first public declaration on the general theme, What Sex Means to Me (I was having nightly dreams of the police showing up at my door and carting me away), I was delighted to have both the photographic show and my contribution to an evening of erotic poetry and film enthusiastically received and appreciated by this group of knowledgeable strangers. The world at large might ignore, ridicule, or prosecute my fledgling attempt at sexual advocacy, but at least I could know that I was not alone or without support. And, over the years since that organizational debut, when I hit those inevitable times when I have to wonder why I bother even trying to affect the way anyone thinks about sex, or whether I in fact have anything interesting or useful to say to anyone about that particular bundle of paradox and confusion, SSSS is one of the places I go to stock up on smiles, friendly hugs, and praise for my efforts, where I am encouraged to remember who I am as a sexual person, writer, publisher, ponderer, and advocate, and why I continue to do the peculiar kind of work I do.

This year, in terms of my own work, I had the opportunity to give a slide show of over 100 photographic images under consideration for a new book in progress of sexual photography, a book I am tentatively calling Sex Is. Equally important, I got to hear a variety of workshop presentations by a host of sex educators, therapists, and researchers, jogging my gut into new amazements, wonderings, and possibilities and my mind into juggling new insights and information.

Libido magazine editor Marianna Beck showed an enlightening collection of her own slides, depicting the social, political, and historical evolution of pornography over the past 400 years, and revealing the long Western pornographic tradition to be (among other things, of course) an on-going vehicle for radical and even subversive political and social commentary. Jim Weinrich of the University of California, San Diego, presented the results of a study suggesting that both early childhood and adolescent experiences had strong imprinting effects on what people ended up finding erotic as adults. San Francisco therapist Jack Morin offered a number of case studies in support of his theory that peak erotic experiences often get their juice from the build-up (and subsequent breaking through) of strong erotic resistance and tension.

Nationally known lesbian author and advocate JoAnn Loulan used her own life as the basis for an entertaining and stereotype-busting look at how a person's sexual orientation may not depend on who you have sex with or, even, who your primary partner is. Sex commentator Susie Bright, in conversation with Marty Klein, offered an evening of social commentary combined with an intimate look at her own not-so-schizophrenic journey as long-time sex radical and more recent media darling. UC Irvine film professor Linda Williams gave a brilliant analysis of the history of American porn films -- from stag movies to the (relatively) big budget sex flicks of the 70s, to low-cost, view-at-home videos, to interactive CD-ROMs -- with particular emphasis on how viewers extend themselves toward the images on screen while internalizing those feelings in their own bodies. Case Western Reserve psychiatrist Stephen Levine presented an analysis of three phases of adult sexual love -- falling in love, being in love, and staying in love -- emphasizing the importance of the last and longest stage of the love process despite media and artistic infatuation with the first two.

By the time the conference ended with its traditional family assemblage for Sunday morning breakfast, awards, appreciations, and glances toward the future, SSSS-WR had worked its healing magic on me one more time. I daresay it did some form of parallel healing for more than a few of the other participants as well. These are not insignificant moments, these comings together among sympathetic friends and like-minded souls before going back out to deal with the misunderstandings of a frequently unsympathetic and even hostile antisexual world. May the force be with us all.

[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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