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.
David Steinberg's Column "Comes Naturally" is published regularly in The Spectator. Past articles are archived at the Society for Human Sexuality website. If you would like to receive his column regularly, you can email him at EroNat@aol.com.