Lusty Ladies are Feisty Ladies

Copyright 1997 by Christine Beatty

(Originally published in Spectator Magazine on July 18, 1997)

Picture this: you’re horribly sick. Temperature, chills, the whole nine yards. You know you should be in bed, but if you don’t show up for work, your hourly wage will be cut in half, requiring you work at least half a year to build it back up to where it was. Nice policy, huh?

Now imagine you’re working for an employer who capriciously promotes, disciplines and fires its workers regardless of merit or seniority. And the crowning touch: your job consists of taking off your clothes and playing with yourself behind one way glass for a man you can’t see and who may be taking a videotape of you, but your employer refuses to do anything about it. You’d probably want to join a union, wouldn’t you?

Well, that’s what the women of the Lusty Lady theater in San Francisco have done. They went ahead and joined Local 790 of the Service Employees International Union, and they recently celebrated the ratification of a one year contract with the management of the theater which provides a guaranteed pay scale and job security, among other benefits. It was a slow, tortuous process maintained only by the tenacity of the dancers and their resolve to overcome injustice.

The Lusty Lady is somewhat unique compared to other strip clubs in that the dancers are paid an hourly wage, instead of working for tips. They perform behind glass in a “peepshow” style venue where a client in a private booth feeds quarters into a coin box to lift the barrier covering this view. “The Lusty Lady is the only place in town where any 18-year-old kid (or 40-year-old corporate executive) with a quarter can go and see live, gyrating, three-dimensional, Hustler-style beaver shots, inches from his face, for half the price of a donut,” according to Jane Noe (as in “Just Say No”), one of the principal organizers. The need to organize became apparent in mid-1996 when the dancers discovered they had become unwitting stars in private porn collections thanks to the one-way glass that prevented them from seeing the customers, some of whom were filming them without their knowledge or consent, and club refused to do anything about it.

Photo by Christine Beatty

The threat of a union inspired the management to remove the one-ways, but this did not divert the dancers, who saw the glass as but symbol of the inequity. Aiding in this struggle, the Exotic Dancers Alliance is now working to maintain the union presence at the Lusty Lady and help organize other clubs. To achieve these ends, including maintaining a strike fund, the EDA has thrown several fund-raisers to support its activities. Having been invited to read from my work at the last two of these events, I and opted to cover the most recent benefit for the readers of Spectator.

Thursday, June 12 finds me driving to Big Heart City in San Francisco with a bag loaded down with my usual trashy stage attire, a tape recorder, camera and a handful of model releases. At 7:30 I arrive at the Mission Street venue as the setup commences inside: bands lugging in their equipment, information and merchandise tables being stocked, and performers and organizers hurrying about making sure everything was going right. In the midst of this controlled madness I wander about introducing myself, getting releases signed and checking out the venue. My first interview is backstage with Carol Leigh AKA Scarlet Harlot, one of the MCs. An obnoxious ice machine drones as Carol preens and answers my questions.

Spectator: Why are you here?

Carol: Organizing dancers in San Francisco is the forefront of the sex worker rights movement and organized labor these days. When we see the really pathetic conditions that dancers are working in some of the clubs and when we talk about the advances that women have made, it is clear that now is the time for dancers to really organize. The sex industry in San Francisco keeps growing and growing, and somebody’s got to do something because the sleaziest guys are ripping them off... I’m incredibly impressed with these women.

Finally, at 8:30 the show starts as emcee Julia Query takes the stage. This woman could and maybe should be a professional standup comic. She has the crowd in stitches with her poignant jabs at the sex biz, both the employers and the customers. She cuts up with hilarious commentary and personal stories between the first half dozen performers, all presenting spoken word accounts of sex work and feminism. Gina Gold, Siobhan Brooks, Michelle Tea and Yours Truly are among the featured readers presenting highly autobiographical material. Just before my turn, four exotic dancers take the stage along with four very willing volunteers to demonstrate lap-dancing. Julia then announces that lap dances are for sale upstairs with the proceeds going to the EDA coffers. She also reminds the crowd of the availability of EDA T-Shirts and other merchandise out front.

The next act not only takes the stage, they take over the floor as well. “Cantankerous Lollies,” a dance troupe flaunting “vaudevillian glamour” is easily the most lavishly entertaining performance of the evening, featuring song, choreography and general high-spirited madness. Remembering my reporter status, I tear myself away from the gaiety in search of a dancer to interview. I soon find Desiree who earlier expressed interest in discussing the union. We travel upstairs to the relative quiet of the dimly-lit lap dancing area. It turns out she's one of the union members from the Lusty Lady.

Spectator: Why should exotic dancers have a union?

Desiree: We do a job that’s strange to most people, but it’s really just a service job. It shouldn’t be anything different than—like the plumbers having a union. We need representation and security, and it’s a serious matter. The only reason we got press coverage was because it was strippers... And even though they did cover it, they missed the whole point.

S: What’s the whole point?

D: We’re like other people. We’re just doing a job. Just because it’s a strange sort of underbelly-type job doesn’t mean we don’t deserve rights or shouldn’t have our union.

S: What kind of rights were you denied?

D: It was very vague about how you could be fired. And you never knew how you stood with management. We never had any cut and dried procedures for firing that made any sense. It was a sort of a contest of personality. It seemed like we’d always be getting [rules changes] sprung on us mid-way in the game, and it felt unfair.

S: Anything else you want to add?

D: I feel like something is going here that is revolutionary that nobody cares about sometimes... It seems like when people hear the words “strip club” they can’t get past that and can’t figure out the further implications. A lot of people get hung up on what we’re doing, and that’s the least thing. The important thing is that we’re workers and we weren’t getting what we should get.

On a roll now, I head back downstairs to find Jane Noe. She’s been womanning the EDA table with T-Shirts, pamphlets and other information the whole night long. She's more than slightly articulate and willing to talk, so we retreat upstairswhere we take a table a discreet distance from the lap dancing.

While we’re talking, MC Julia is getting a lap dance from a friend with a ticket paid for by an EDA supporter. They’re having a blast. Meanwhile, I’m interviewing. Jane is a sweet, brunette, girl-next-door type who also works at the LL. As one of the original instigators of the union, however, she’s clearly nobody to fuck with.

By now the crowd is thinning somewhat as The Deep Throats ascend the stage, a “whorecore” punk band whose very raw music skills are more than compensated by their even rawer attitude. They provide the only false note of the night when an equipment problem forces them to quit playing and they refuse to leave the stage, requiring the intimidating presence of six large security guards to get them moving.

Regretably delayed until after midnight, the faithful audience is rewarded with a tour de force performance of Wicked Leadbelly, a smoking hot rock band fronted by singers Meg and Audra and anchored by veteran musicians Carlo, Lenny and Tim. Meg and Audra do their girl-girl schtick on stage that drives the boys wild, and belt out powerful, complementary vocals that are the band's trademark.

Photo by Christine Beatty

Two days later brings the interviews I’d wanted to do that night. The following are edited transcripts of conversations with “Jane Noe” and “Julia Query,” two women I came to highly respect after hearing their stories. I think you will too.

Spectator: How did the Exotic Dancers Union come around?

Jane: We started organizing over a year ago when we discovered customers were coming into the theater and making porn films of us. Three of the windows consisted of one-way glass, so the customers would come in and videotape us and take still photos for a couple bucks. They were getting away with their film intact, because we usually couldn’t detect that they were filming us unless they forgot to cover that little telltale red light on the camera which was how we found out it was happening in the first place. We complained to management for months, asking them to remove those one-ways so we could spot the film equipment. And the management balked, refused to remove the one-ways and kept saying that it’s an occupational hazard and if you don’t like it get another job.

Instead of getting other jobs we decided to hook up with the Service Employees International Union, Local 790 and get organized, not only to get rid of the one-way windows but also because there were a lot of other serious injustices going on where we worked... People getting fired and suspended for vague reasons or often not given any reason at all. There was an inhumane sick policy where we were forced to work while we were sick if we couldn’t find someone  to cover our shift. And if you did call in sick you got your pay cut in half a lot of the time. There was one glaring example where a dancer was forced to work while she was having a miscarriage. She was not allowed to miss that shift.

You could get your pay cut for missing a staff meeting, for missing your shift... If you were at the top [of the pay scale] and you messed up once—got sick or missed one meeting—you could be back down to ten dollars and hour which is ridiculous for sex work. Ten dollars for an hour straight of nude dancing doing explicit, graphic, up-close personal shows. These were a lot of the reasons we needed the protection of a union.

S: So what happened next?

J: We decided go through with a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election at the end of August, 1996. But before the election happened, the management refused to recognize the union and they hired Litler-Mendelson, a law firm located downtown that’s infamous for busting unions. They ran a “vote no” propaganda campaign. They put up all kinds of misleading flyers all over the dressing room. They pulled people into these small group meetings where they excluded the activists and the organizers and told them all these horror stories about what would happen if they unionized.... They followed the standard union-busting script, but they failed miserably and really just wasted a lot of money because we won 57 to 15... Then we spent the next few months negotiating the contract.

In the beginning that was really trying because the management was very resistant... dragging their feet and rejecting all our proposals. We’d had enough of that after three or four months and so we decided to stage our first job action, which we called “No-Pink Day.” That day almost all the dancers participated... they suddenly became very modest and stood at the back of the stage and didn’t supply the product the customers were expecting. The management responded by firing one of the participants, a dancer named Summer, which is a standard union-busting tactic to divide us and scare us and intimidate us, but instead what it really did was polarize people and make us angry. And we organized a picket for the next two days in which half of the staff participated in. And then even more came to support us at contract negotiations the next day.

S: You picketed the Lusty Lady? I love it.

J: We found out after we did the picket, we didn’t realize that was so militant, so unheard of. We just figured “here’s an injustice, we need to act, we need to be in the street about that.” And after we did it people in the union were saying “Noone’s done that in ten years. You guys are so militant.” Which was kind of funny to us because we thought that’s what you do, right? The union had very little to do with bureaucracy and pushing papers. To us, it was a lot more concrete, hands-on, fighting injustice where you see it, when you see it.

S:That would tend to hit them where they lived. I can’t see a customer crossing that picket line.

J: Very few did. And the ones who did got a serious tongue lashing.

S: [Laughing]Some of them might have liked that!

J: I’m afraid they did!... Three days after [Summer] was fired the management rehired her, and that was a real turning point. It became very concrete to them how powerful we could be when we needed to be, and that’s when they started to negotiate in good faith. We eventually ratified our contract this April and we’ve been living under it since then. Things are very different now.

My last interview was with emcee Julia Query, a gorgeous, brassy, brunette, self-described Jewish Princess from New York with an attitude. While not one of the original organizers, she became more of an activist when the union effort had begun and was part of the contract bargaining committee.

Spectator: What has unionizing done for the dancers?

Julia: They provided us with a chief negotiator highly experienced in arguing for a contract. She listened to us talk about what we wanted in a contract, and went out to make our offers. Then we sat there with her opposing the Litler-Mendelson lawyers and management and argued for what we wanted. Unionization has had a major impact on working conditions at the Lusty Lady. The economic benefits have accrued mainly to new dancers, so those of us that have been more than a year really didn’t gain a whole lot economically. They used to advertise you could be at top wage within a year, and when we reviewed the books it seemed no one had ever actually gotten to top wage in a year. Now we have a higher starting salary and a standard pay scale such that in seven and a half months you’ll be at $21 an hour. They can no longer withhold raises; they can no longer do favoritism. Absolutely everybody there is on standard uniform pay scale.

The economic advantage went to the new dancers, but all of us had a huge benefit from unionizing because we no longer are subject to the one-way mirrors which was the original  issue. But we now also have a grievance and arbitration procedure for when we are not treated fairly by management. We now have a way and a right to fight them about that instead of having to take their abuse.

S: Any last words of wisdom?

J: Some people are afraid of unions because there are some corrupt unions, but sex workers need to improve working conditions because they’re not good enough. Through unity we can do that. I hope that everyone, customers and dancers and sex workers everywhere can realize that with improved working conditions, the sex industry will be better for customers and better for workers. We have nothing to fear from organizing. Some dancers have been opposed to trying to improve working conditions for various reasons including the lies they are told by their management. There’s no reason not to build unity among sex workers and not to fight for improved working conditions. We have everything to gain by doing so.

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