The Story

LABOR ORGANIZING IN THE SKIN TRADE
Tales of a Peepshow Prole

By Miss Mary Ann

“TWO, FOUR, SIX, EIGHT, DON’T COME HERE TO MASTURBATE!” sounds a little like something the Moral Majority might have chanted back in the ’80s, but this catchy slogan was actually a battle cry for fair treatment on the job. A few confused bystanders assumed my coworkers and I were anti-porn zealots protesting our favorite sleaze merchant. Not exactly–the sex business was our bread and butter. We were strippers picketing for better working conditions at the nude theater that employed us, organizing what would later become the only strippers’ union in the country. Our boss had just fired a dancer. The company claimed she was fired for “disrupting other employees,” but we knew the real reason was her union activism. The dancer, “Summer,” was a single mom with a three-year-old to support.

Relations with management had been rocky ever since we started talking union, but Summer’s termination sparked an all-out war. It was a Saturday, the union office was closed, and we couldn’t get a hold of our union rep. We were on our own. Less than 24 hours after Summer was fired, and dozens of phone calls later, close to half the staff of dancers, cashiers and janitors showed up at work on their day off to protest. With picket signs and leaflets in hand, we poured into the manager’s office and demanded Summer’s job back .The manager told us to get out. Our picket line went up immediately.

* * *

I dance at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. The place isn’t a strip club with a stage and a staff of lapdancers working the audience. It’s a peepshow–a mirrored box of naked women, writhing and undulating behind glass for masturbating voyeurs. The customers are separated from one another in individual, broom closet-sized booths, and watch the dancers through crotch-level windows. A quarter buys a customer a 15-second glimpse of female flesh before the window’s shutter closes; most manage to ejaculate before they’ve spent five bucks. Budget masturbators can complete the task at hand for as little as 75 cents by jerking away in the dark, only depositing another quarter when their mental snapshot of us has completely dissipated.

The reporters flocking to cover our organizing drive often had a difficult time understanding what we do as “work,” but the job has always been defined in MY mind by the repetitive manual labor it demands. Punch a time clock, spot an open window, make eye contact, pout, wink, swivel your hips a little, put a stilleto-clad foot up on the window sill to reveal an eye-full of your two most marketable orifices, fondle your tits, smack your ass, stroke whatever pubic hair you haven’t shaven off, repeat these ten steps until the customer comes, then move on to the next window, repeat the process until your shift’s over, punch out. Some call it the fast food of the sex industry: we produce assembly line orgasms.

Three of the peepshow’s 13 windows were made of one-way glass; the customers could see us, but we couldn’t see them. For years, the Lusty Lady attracted amateur pornographers who’d set up shop behind the one-way windows. They videotaped and photographed us with alarming regularity, usually without our knowledge, and always without our consent or compensation. We only discovered how widespread the problem was because absent-minded cameramen would occasionally forget to cover the telltale, red “on” light before they started filming. Whenever a dancer looked down and noticed a red light in the window she was dancing for, her impulse was usually to break through the glass and destroy the film. But she’d always resist, fighting the wave of fury and nausea that would inevitably hit her, and call security instead. More often than not though, it would be too late, the guy would get away. Where would that stolen image resurface? Who would see it? How many others were making money off it?

We complained to theater management repeatedly, and asked the company to remove the one-way glass to make it easier for us to spot the videocameras. Management refused and told us to “get another job” if we didn’t like it. Despite the company’s no camera policy, management insisted that unpaid porn stardom was an occupational hazard we had to accept. We disagreed, and turned to the Exotic Dancers Alliance (EDA), a San Francisco sex worker advocacy group set up by the original plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit against the Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell Theater. The EDA put us in touch with local 790 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and convinced the local’s initially reluctant organizing staff to take a risk on us, despite disapproval from union higher-ups.

As soon as we announced our plans to unionize, management removed the one-ways, but also refused to recognize the union, and hired a law firm infamous for busting unions. Though the one-ways were gone, other problems at work were still festering: management played favorites, the company’s disciplinary policy was unwritten and inconsistently applied, dancers had their pay permanently cut in half for missing a staff meeting or calling in sick, were suspended for not “having fun” and were fired for even more ambiguous reasons. The female managers who enforced these draconian policies always did so with a smile, insisting we worked at “the best” strip joint in town because we got free hot chocolate and weren’t required to suck the boss’ dick in exchange for our employment. The company’s “sex positive, dancer-friendly” reputation was for the most part a hollow marketing ploy. We had virtually no recourse if we were treated unfairly, and anyone who complained was quickly labeled “disruptive” or “disrespectful.” We knew a union contract could temper these injustices and hold the company accountable for its actions.

In the summer of 1996 we decided to go through with a National Labor Relations Board union election. If we won the election, the company would be legally obligated to negotiate a contract with us. Management prepared for the vote by running an anti-union propaganda campaign. Managers held a series of mandatory group meetings, excluded the organizers, and told workers the union would impose exorbitant dues (in reality, about $4 a week), union officials would “force” us to strike (workers always vote on whether to strike), or fine us for “disagreeing” with them (one of many straight out lies). The company told us a union would destroy the Lusty Lady “family” (fine with us–in that family, we were the kids and management the parents), and union reps would “bargain away” the rights and benefits we did have during contract negotiations (in reality, other dancers were at the bargaining table negotiating the contract with management, and the workers all vote on the final agreement–the Jimmy Hoffa-style secret, back-room deals between union reps and management the company “warned” us about never materialized). Management put two key organizers on “final warning” for bogus infractions, and spread rumors that they were “harassing” and “intimidating” other dancers. Despite the lies, deceptive leaflets, threats, harassment of union activists and scripted, tear-filled pleas to give the company a “second chance,” we stuck it out and won the election 57 to 15. We named our SEIU chapter the Exotic Dancers Union.

We spent the months following the election attempting to negotiate a contract with the company. But instead of working out an agreement with us, company lawyers spent most of the bargaining sessions engaged in performance art that easily rivaled our own in caliber and affectation. Like a stripper who waits until the end of the song to wiggle out of her panties, the lawyers kept their client paying by teasing us with lengthy diatribes, each bargaining session’s invective more scathing than the last, the union’s planned demise just around the corner. They were paid by the hour, and their time-wasting strategies were impressive. For example, they spent days insisting that dancers were “sexually harassing” each other by using the “scurrilous, offensive and derogatory term pussy” in the workplace. (Despite the word’s “scurrilous” qualities, one lawyer in particular delighted in repeating this term as often as possible.) Never mind that our workplace is a smut palace, the lawyers repeatedly ignored our efforts to discuss things like sick pay and grievance rights, and flooded us with contract proposals outlawing foul-mouthed hussies instead.

Although the lawyers turned out to be far better whores than we could ever aspire to be, attorney-customer comparisons were also inevitable and hard to avoid. At the end of one particularly tedious bargaining session, the star of the company’s legal team even copped to the similarity. “An attorney is but a condom,” he bragged, “protecting the prick who’s screwing someone else.” That line was the first and last piece of honesty we got from this guy. After getting paid to watch middle-aged men in power suits masturbate to us every day at work, our tolerance for all the rhetorical circle jerking we had to endure for free at the bargaining table quickly began to wane. As the lawyers’ bargaining session rants wore on, we’d begin to imagine them with their ties flung over their shoulders, the way we were accustomed to seeing their peers in the peep booths at work. (This fashion trend guards against the embarrassing possibility of returning to the office with a semen-splattered tie.)

No sooner had we resolved the “pussy” issue than had company lawyers begun insisting management needed the right to fire any dancer who’d been with the company for more than a year and a half. Since customers need “variety,” they reasoned, termination of long-term dancers was a “legitimate business need.” In this industry, seniority is a liability; strip joints WANT a high turnover. This was a temporary job, a short-term assignment, the duration of which was determined by a byzantine and arcane set of constantly changing criteria that managers would use to justify firing dancers who got too “old” or too uppity. One dancer’s “sultry stare” was another’s “scornful glare.” One month our run-of-the-mill pelvic grinding would be “interactive” and “fun,” the managers would tell us, but the next month they’d call it “repetitive” and “boring.” Countless trees died needlessly to sustain the Lusty Lady’s almost fetishistic obsession with documenting our “job performance” in an extensive collection of personnel files they maintained on us. It was a damn PEEPSHOW for chrissakes, not a psychotropic drug study, or a Broadway production for that matter! Management knew we’d never agree to contract language that would codify the company’s “right” to fire us at will–“legitimate business need” or not– but they were trying to wear us down, and make us give up.

We didn’t give up, and a few months into this routine, we staged a job action to protest the slow pace at the bargaining table. The Lusty Lady is the only place in town any 18-year-old kid (or 40-year-old executive) can watch live, gyrating, three-dimensional, Hustler-style beaver shots, inches from his face, for half the price of a donut. (No, we don’t hustle “peeps” for quarters; we’re paid by the hour to perform for whoever’s watching.) The two-bit pussy show is the Lusty Lady’s signature commodity, and on “No Pink” day the goods weren’t for sale. We continued to dance nude, but kept our legs demurely closed. The marquis outside still said XXX, but the show we put on was probably somewhere between PG-13 and R. Almost every dancer who worked that day took part in the action, and frantic managers responded to our newfound modesty by firing Summer.

The attempt to intimidate and divide us backfired. We retaliated by picketing the theater for the next two days and management fired back with a lockout. They closed the show, and the dancers scheduled to work lost two days’ pay, but we stuck together and kept the picket line going. Most customers steered clear of the commotion, some were supportive, a few mistook us for anti-porn Christians, but only a handful braved a tongue-lashing from the crowd and crossed our picket line. Apparently deluded by their legal counsel into thinking the union was “all talk,” managers were stunned that we actually had the balls (and the solidarity) to walk the walk. After a two-day stalemate, the company caved in, rehired Summer, and finally began to cooperate at the bargaining table. Management quit talking about the “need” to fire long-term dancers, and offered us a raise instead.

Ultimately management didn’t agree to all of our demands, and there was talk of a strike, but we eventually ratified a first contract in April 1997, and a second in April 1998. There’s still a sizable gap between profits for the company and wages for the workers, but we won rights, job security, sick pay, automatic raises, and a guarantee the one-way windows won’t return from a company that probably never intended on reaching a contract at all, in an industry infamous for regarding its workforce as disposable.

Although the Lusty Lady is currently the only unionized nude theater in the country, our success sparked similar organizing campaigns at clubs and theaters in Alaska, Philadelphia and another in San Francisco. Dressing rooms across the nation are full of disgruntled strippers who want to do more than gripe about their plight. They want to kick some ass! Contact the EXOTIC DANCERS UNION at 510-465-0122 x461 or fly5@mindspring.com to learn how to pull off a do-it-yourself union organizing campaign at your own neighborhood girlie show!

© 2011 Julia Query