COMES NATURALLY #66
Spectator Magzine - December 12, 1997
(c) David Steinberg
There Once Was a Union Maid...
There once was a union maid
Who never was afraid
Of the goons and ginks and the company finks And the deputy sheriffs that made the raids. She went to the union hall
When a meeting it was called
And if the company boys came around
She always stood her ground.
-- old union song
The Word Is Out
It was some eight months ago that the dancers at San Francisco's Lusty Lady Theater ratified their groundbreaking work contract, becoming the only existing group of erotic dancers in the U.S. to successfully negotiate a union contract. Represented by Service Employees International Union Local 790, the dancers and other employees at the Lusty won themselves guaranteed work shifts, protection against arbitrary discipline and termination, automatic hourly wage increases, sick days, a contracted procedure for pursuing grievances against management, and removal of the one-way mirrors in peep show booths that had been a particularly sore point for dancers before unionization. (Customers were using the one-way mirrored booths to secretly take pictures of dancers that were then showing up on the internet. The dancers were not amused.)
Now, thanks in part to the democratizing effect of the internet, word is getting out to dancers in all parts of the country that some dancers have actually organized a union, won a contract, and broken the previously monolithic control of theater and club owners over the wages, terms of employment, and working conditions at strip clubs and lap dancing theaters. One by one, clubs that cut dancers' pay, increase their stage fees, impose new "commission" arrangements, or otherwise alter working conditions in ways that are detrimental to dancers, are being met with women who are saying, "I'm not going to let you do that to me." A new spirit of cooperation seems to be growing up alongside the almost libertarian individualism for which erotic dancers and other sex workers have long been known.
The results have been predictably ugly. The hostility and intimidation, often illegal, with which dancers trying to organize unions have been greeted makes the owners of the Lusty Lady -- who resorted to some strong intimidation of their own -- look almost dancer-friendly. Owners and managers of sex-related entertainment venues are used to having ultimate and final control of their clubs, and generally used to being able to treat dancers with the same summarial disrespect as do tongue-clucking morality brokers and ratings-conscious television talk-show hosts. Stories of unclean and unsafe working conditions, arbitrary dismissals and suspensions, and routine sexual harassment abound. Confronted with women who are suddenly challenging their right to treat employees anyway they please, owners and managers are responding with indignant rage, attempting to fire or financially penalize troublemaking dancers, conducting campaigns of character assassination, subjecting dancers to verbal and physical intimidation and attack, and -- at the other end of the carrot-stick dichotomy -- buying off compliant dancers with gifts and exotic vacations.
Nevertheless, the infectious idea that it's actually possible to take charge of your work life -- even if the work you do is sexual in nature, involves taking off your clothes, and is something you don't want your mother to know about -- is spreading. Active union organizing campaigns are now underway at strip and lapdance clubs in Anchorage, North Hollywood, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, as well as at a second club in San Francisco, actively aided and abetted by a Lusty Lady activist who is anxious to assist other unionizing dancers. (She has asked me not to use her real name, as she may want to work under cover at other clubs and doesn't want to get blacklisted. For the purpose of this article, I'll call her Jane.)
Discontent in Anchorage...
Tora Brawley is a single mother, a student at the University of Alaska, and an apprentice midwife. She has been a stripper at Anchorage's Showboat Show Club for three years and has been trying to organize a union there since June. Anticipating a hostile response from management, she conducted a "flash" organizing campaign, with the support of Local 959 of the Teamsters Union. Without informing management, she began talking with other dancers about being represented by a union. In two days, she collected 38 signed cards from dancers wanting union representation. When over half the employees at a worksite sign union pledge cards, a union can petition the National Labor Relations Board to schedule an election on the issue of union representation. Brawley's cards spoke for two-thirds of the dancers at the club. She filed with the National Labor Relations Board, asking that a union election be scheduled.
Management responded in high dudgeon. "You have to understand," Brawley explains, "these are Hell's Angels kind of guys." All of the dancers who signed union cards were fired, although many were subsequently rehired. Brawley, rehired because she threatened to sue for harassment, says she was both verbally and physically assaulted by club management. She was, she says, physically assaulted three times by the owner's ex-wife alone. In one incident, according to Brawley, she was taken downstairs at the club by an armed security guard and two club managers who then threatened her, reduced her work schedule to one day a week, and told her, as she puts it, to "watch your ass, little girl."
As was the case during organizing efforts at the Lusty Lady Theater, these attempts at intimidation backfired. When other dancers heard what had happened to Brawley, they rallied around her, more determined than ever to win union representation. The dedication of the Teamsters, however, was not so resolute.
Although, according to Brawley, the individual Teamster organizers working with her were "gung ho for us," the union's executive board was of another mind. Midway through the organizing campaign, the board decided it didn't want any strippers in its union. They dropped the dancers flat, and the organizers, despite their enthusiasm, had to withdraw. Attempts by Brawley to rally community support for the strippers went nowhere. Churches, not surprisingly would have nothing to do with her. Neither would local feminists. Although Brawley did get a sympathetic response from the (female) labor reporter at the Anchorage Daily News, Brawley and the dancers were essentially on their own.
At the suggestion of their original Teamster organizer, Brawley called John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO. When Sweeney didn't return her call, Brawley called again, continuing to place calls to his office, every half hour, day after day. Finally, says Brawley, an exasperated Sweeney asked Richard Seward, Alaska state AFL-CIO director, to do something to get this crazy woman off his back.
Seward proved far more sympathetic to the idea that strippers deserved union representation as much as any other workers. He told Brawley he would find a union to represent her and proceeded to call every local in Alaska, looking for someone who would take the strippers on. Every union refused.
As a last resort, Seward invited representatives of the local Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union to dinner at an upscale Anchorage restaurant. He said nothing to them about strippers, but he also invited Brawley. Face to face, Brawley got to be recognized by the union people as a genuine human being rather than being dismissed as some generic, stereotypical "stripper." When she spoke about conditions at the club and how the dancers were serious in wanting union representation, the union agreed to work with her. Impressed with Brawley's determination and persuasiveness, Seward told her, "I don't know whether to represent you or hire you."
Meanwhile, however, management launched its own campaign, claiming that it was they who were being intimidated and harassed by Brawley. "I'm five-foot-four and a hundred pounds," says Brawley. "I'm sure they were really intimidated by me!" They closed the club for remodeling and reported receiving a bomb threat. Dancers began to be afraid of being seen talking to Brawley. When the owners circulated a letter pressuring dancers to withdraw their union cards, several dancers did so. Nevertheless, says Brawley, thirty of the original 38 dancers have continued to petition for representation.
On September 21, after what she describes as heightened verbal attacks that included insulting her children, Brawley walked off the job and filed a charge with the NLRB that she had been "constructively discharged for verbal assault," meaning that her work environment had become so hostile that it was impossible for her to continue working there. That charge is now pending before the Board. If the Board rules in her favor, Brawley would be reinstated, owners would be restrained from further harassing her, and she would collect back wages for the time she was unable to work. Brawley believes she will win her case. She points out that Eric Moss, a bouncer at the club also active in the union who was fired, was awarded unemployment benefits on appeal, even though management claimed his firing was unrelated to his union activity.
The union has also petitioned the NLRB for a Gissell bargaining order, which can order union representation without an election when extreme harassment makes a fair election impossible. A ruling on the Gissell is expected soon. Although Gissell orders are rarely issued, Brawley believes the board is sympathetic because of the specific circumstances of this case. "The NLRB up here is just two guys and a secretary," she notes. "They're trying to be fair." The union has already won a ruling from the Board giving them access to the club's records listing the names and addresses of all employees at the time of the election petition filing.
While waiting for the Board to act, the dancers have not been idle. They organized a one-night picket of the Showboat, and are continuing to leaflet customers outside the club, asking them to take their business to another Anchorage strip club, the Sands. The Sands is owned by two women, and would be quite happy to recognize a union, should the dancers there want one. (While the Sands does not have enough employees to fall under the jurisdiction of the NLRB, that could change as dancers leave the Showboat to work instead at the (less lucrative) Sands.
Morale of the dancers has been boosted by a visit from Jane of San Francisco's Lusty Lady Theater, who traveled to Anchorage to talk with Brawley and help her plan her campaign. According to Jane, the Showboat is hurting financially as a result of the boycott and leafleting. "Anchorage," one organizer noted, "is really a small town. The people who see you dance one night are going to run into you the next day at the supermarket. There's a lot of customer support for the dancers."
...North Hollywood, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia...
Anchorage is not the only place where dancers have taken heart from the successes at the Lusty Lady and begun to organize on their own. At the Star Garden club in North Hollywood, dancers began campaigning for a union in September under the sponsorship of the American Guild for Variety Artists (AFL-CIO) after management cut their hourly wage and started taking a cut of tips from table dances. Three of the most active organizers were fired and are contesting their terminations as an unfair labor practice. (It is illegal to fire workers because they are trying to organize a union.) The dancers have collected union cards and are about to file with the NLRB to have an election ordered.
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, dancers at two local clubs have contacted organizers from the Lusty Lady for advice after their wages were similarly cut and flexibility in work hours reduced. "A lot of the girls are single mothers or are putting themselves through school," says one person working with the dancers. " They are not taking kindly to this latest move."
In Philadelphia, an organizing effort by dancers at the Oakford Inn in suburban Bensalem Township resulted in an October 28 election on union representation, but dancers there voted the union down. The union drive began as a protest against club working conditions, including dressing rooms with exposed wiring, flooded floors, and infestations of roaches. During the election campaign, management responded by cleaning up conditions in the dressing room, taking dancers on gift vacations, and threatening recalcitrant dancers with being fired "or worse," according to organizers from the Lusty Lady who have been working with the dancers in Philadelphia. As in Anchorage, the Philadelphia dancers were initially represented by the Teamsters, only to be dropped by the union in the middle of their organizing campaign. Unable to connect with an organized union, the dancers continued on their own as the Professional Dancers Union. Their lack of organized union support may have been one factor in their defeat, although organizers put most of the blame on unfair management interference with the election process. They are asking the NLRB to invalidate the October 28 election because of management interference. (In 1994 at Pacers, a strip club in San Diego, an initial election in which dancers voted against unionization was thrown out by the NLRB for similar reasons. With management restrained from interference, the union won the second balloting.) They have also filed a request with the NLRB for a Gissell bargaining order, asking that the union be certified without an election because pressure from management makes a fair election impossible.
...and San Francisco
Meanwhile in San Francisco, some 80% of the dancers at the Regal Theater on Market Street have signed cards requesting a collective bargaining election. Dancers at the Regal are being represented by Service Employees International Union Local 790, the same union that successfully organized dancers at the Lusty Lady and negotiated their April contract.
Dancers at the Regal called an emergency meeting with organizers from the Lusty Lady after management removed the peep show tip slots through which customers would tip dancers for sexier shows. Although Regal dancers are paid an hourly wage, most of their earnings have come from tips. Under the club's new policy, the club essentially takes half of those tips, close to a 50% reduction in their previous earnings. Dancers also have no way to oversee management's reporting of daily cash receipts which are the basis of how much they get paid.
Dancers at the Regal filed for an election with the NLRB on November 14. That petition is now in pre-election hearings, with an election order expected shortly.
Meanwhile, Back at the Lusty Lady...
At the Lusty Lady itself, dancers are still getting used to the idea that they are protected by the terms of their negotiated contract, while management gradually gets used to the idea that things are very different now from the way they used to be. Grievance issues in the first eight months of the contract have centered on improper terminations and suspensions of dancers as well as various lesser issues. According to Jane, essentially all of the disputed terminations and suspensions have been reversed as a result of grievance filings. Managers are learning that they simply can no longer dismiss or suspend dancers without cause, that they really will have to justify their actions once a dancer goes to her shop steward and the union files its grievance.
While hard feelings and tensions still linger after the long and bitter organizing campaign, both dancers and managers are gradually settling into the Lusty's new world order. Jane reports that since the union campaign, dancers feel a much stronger sense of community with each other, are more willing to defend each other, and more willing to stand up for themselves as well, complaining to union representatives when something happens that they think is unfair.
[Dancers interested in information and help around organizing a union can contact "Jane" of San Francisco's Lusty Lady Theater at the Exotic Dancers Union, affiliated with Service Employees International Union, Local 790, at (510) 465-0122, extension 461.]
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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