Dispatch from the California Stripper Strike

In all radical labor movements, history is made when ordinary workers disrupt the system that seeks to exploit and silence them. Because of social stigma, wage theft, and sexual assault, the strip club has always been a difficult and dangerous work environment. Today, the stakes have reached a desperate tipping point, even though, technically, thanks to a recent court ruling, we have more legal rights than ever: we have the right to discuss the job while on the job, the right to organize and gather, and the right to unionize, which will give us a voice in the workplace—instead of only a body to be gazed at.

The rumblings of revolutions begin small

Photo by Jed Bell

This piece is one in a series of three excerpts from We Too, a collection of narrative essays by sex workers, edited by Natalie West with Tina Horn and available from the Feminist Press on February 9th. With contributions from across the industry, We Too covers a broad range of topics—such as activism and organizing, parenthood and homelessness, sexual health and BDSM—and works to complicate the narrow understandings of sexual harassment and violence that emerged from the #metoo movement. The collection also includes Sonya Aragon’s “Whores at the End of the World,” and a piece by Lorelei Lee, who wrote  “Cash/Consent” for n+1 Issue 35.

Read more from the book here and here.

It’s 9 PM on a Friday night in 2019 and I’m headed to Crazy Girls, a topless club in Hollywood—the same busy intersection that, two days from now, will be blocked off for the Oscars where African American actors Regina King, Hannah Beachler, and Ruth Carter will be celebrated this season. Lady Gaga will encourage female artists to stand up no matter how many times they get knocked down.

Crazy Girls has a metal detector outside that customers and dancers walk through, like airport security. This one is flanked by two bulky male bouncers in white Pumas. Tonight I won’t walk through the metal detector, because I’m not here to strip or to watch the dancers, even though I’m standing in my sky-high stiletto work shoes with red rhinestone hearts carved into the soles.

Nine on Friday is early for a stripper, but not for our allies, and we need our allies tonight. We’re staging a wildcat strike action to interrupt the unfair labor practices at Crazy Girls. I dump a big red plastic tub on the sidewalk—it’s filled with bottles of water, chocolate almonds and protein bars. Our friends from Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)-LA, Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP)-LA, Me Too, 5050by2020 and other groups hold bright pink signs that we made together the night before. We ate a homemade dinner while making the sparkly neon signs, which read, “Heels On, Walk Off.” We gathered in an art gallery and learned how to silkscreen T-shirts with bright pink stilettos that say “Stop Wage Theft” in Russian, Spanish, and English. Domino Rey, one of the other Soldiers of Pole—a trio of organizing strippers of which I am one third—is already speaking to a local news channel. Her black hair is pulled tightly into braids and her eyes blaze in the lights that flood down from the media van. She’s talking to the seasoned news anchor, a striking brunette, about wage theft and our strike.

“We no longer should have to pay to work. We shouldn’t have to pay house fees. We shouldn’t have to give any sort of percentage of our tips to management or any other employees and we want to stop the sexual harassment and assault in the club,” Domino Rey said.

In all radical labor movements, history is made when ordinary workers disrupt the system that seeks to exploit and silence them. Because of social stigma, wage theft, and sexual assault, the strip club has always been a difficult and dangerous work environment. Today, the stakes have reached a desperate tipping point, even though, technically, thanks to a recent court ruling, we have more legal rights than ever: we have the right to discuss the job while on the job, the right to organize and gather, and the right to unionize, which will give us a voice in the workplace—instead of only a body to be gazed at.

Tonight, we strike. As employees, we can do so because of a California Supreme Court ruling, Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles, that changed the classification of employees in California and made it harder for employers to classify their workforce as “independent contractors.” The Dynamex case involved a workforce of delivery drivers, but it is only the latest in a long history of misclassification-of-employment cases fought by seasonal workers, car washers, and others.

While the Dynamex ruling gives us the right to strike more easily and organize more publicly, the ruling has also forced California strip club owners to reckon with the fact they have to pay us minimum wage as well as pay federal and state taxes. The way club owners have implemented the new law has fostered desperation and fear. They’ve been doling out paychecks for zero dollars or with fictional hours worked. They have created a hostile environment by targeting “problem girls,” ones who dare question the random fees and fines, coercive “release of claims” contracts and confusing bribes from management. In essence, strip clubs are charging strippers more fees in order to get us to pay our own minimum wage. The problem isn’t the new labor law itself, but the way employers are implementing it, which makes being an employee seem like a bad deal.

What this looks like on the shop floor is management demanding we hand over the first hundred dollars we earn for the night, or the income from our first five lap dances. Strippers earn the great majority of their income not from their stage performances, but from individual lap dances. Imagine you are an employee at a car wash. Your boss tells you to hand over the cash you earned for the first ten cars you wash. After those ten cars, you get paid. Strip club owners, managers, and bouncers steal our earnings like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Now that we’re employees, they are snatching and grabbing every last dollar they can before we workers revolt.

Now we are revolting. The rumblings of revolutions begin small: a tiny flickering lamp shedding light on a system designed to keep an almost entirely femme workforce vulnerable by leveraging our financial need.

Rebelling against oppressive, exploitative, racist companies and being frightened of losing my job is nothing new to me. Back in 1995, when I worked at an all-nude peep show in San Francisco called the Lusty Lady, we punched time clocks and took ten-minute water and wig-change breaks. Back then, although we aimed to stop blatant discrimination in our workplace, our main rallying point was to stop customers from filming us naked without our knowledge or consent. Imagine your legs spread wide showing every layer of pink in front of a window with a stranger’s head bobbing up and down. Then imagine a red light glowing from a camera recording your clit for a nonconsensual closeup. We wanted management to remove the one-way glass in certain booths and wanted them to ban cameras. After a two-year labor war, we became SEIU Local 790: The Exotic Dancer’s Alliance.

Where we were then and where we are now are not much different.

This is what it’s like to be a stripper today: lap dancing for free, being pressured to hustle faster to pay your own wages and getting sent home if it doesn’t happen fast enough, and being coerced and bullied by bouncers and managers to hand over money that you’ve earned with your time and body, all while employers continue to avoid providing any employee benefits that you are legally entitled to—like a safe and sane work environment, free from wage theft, assault, and abuse. A monied government official came into the club where I still dance topless. He grabbed me and held me in a choke hold. I grabbed his forearms. I tried to elbow him. I said, “Let me go,” over and over. Management was nowhere to be found. When he laughed and released me, I told him to give me $200, then walked away. But there is not enough money in the world to be this exposed, disposable, and unprotected at work.

This is the very business model that we need to explode—the one that club owners have operated for decades under an assumption that strippers’ bodies are the product that they are pushing: a product of which they are owed a cut. We strippers do not rent a space or a chair, like hairdressers. We don’t rent a stage or a room. We don’t sling alcohol. We are not working on commission. We are entertainers. As lap dancers, we have more in common with actors and comics than with bartenders and barbers, because we are a live show. There is no question whether or not strippers should be classified as employees—we are employees. And now we can unionize. The question is: How are we going to protect workers from abusive labor practices, like employers charging women to work for them? It’s not audacious for the state to regulate the private sector, but it is audacious for these strip club owners to get away with wage theft, racketeering, assault, labor violations, tax evasion, and abuse for decades. Our bodies are not the property or product of strip clubs, and they never have been.

Corporate strip clubs like Déjà Vu (where Stormy Daniels is the current spokesperson) are the worst offenders. They are notorious for taking a 60 percent cut—or more—of dancers’ tips. Daniels and other strippers who dance at Déjà Vu have voiced their preference for independent contractor status, which is contrary to the current change of law in California. However, the term “independent contractor” is intrinsically deceitful. Independent contractors cannot legally discuss money while on the job and cannot cooperate to set prices due to antitrust laws. The Labor Commissioner’s Office has no jurisdiction over independent contractors. Management is under no legal obligation to comply with contractors’ demands. The economic incentives for employers to misclassify workers as independent contractors are colossal, as employers under this model evade regulations governing wages, hours, safe and sane working conditions, and other legal protections all workers have under the law.

Most importantly, stripping is women’s work. We rely on our tips, which invites different questions that have to do with how we value women’s physical and financial autonomy in the workplace. Critics of the Dynamex decision consider regulating the private sector a bad thing, but it can be a useful and powerful tool for workers—and there is nothing suspect about forcing clubs to allow workers employee status.

It’s time we ask better questions, like: How would strippers like to experience autonomy in their workplace? And what does a safe and sane workplace look like in a strip club? I ask these questions of young strippers who are vibrating with rage, and it’s as if they’ve never been asked what they want before. The thing about normalizing stigma and exploitation is that eventually you accept your powerlessness. Or you stand up and resist. It’s almost 10 PM when a petite Latina in sweats and an extra-high ponytail approaches the main entrance of Crazy Girls. I reach into my back pocket, into which I’ve tucked tubes of clear lip gloss with “soldiersofpole.com” written in black sharpie—an offering to alert her and her co-workers who are on the schedule tonight that we are here, and we can unionize. As I walk toward her to hand her the lip gloss, two bouncers stand between us. One of them interrupted our chant earlier, yelling out, “You girls can come back and audition on Tuesday.” I meet the dancer’s eyes, then the bouncer quickly spirits her inside Crazy Girls, where she may be told to ignore us. Later her tips will be confiscated by a “counter” and she will have to wait until 4 AM to get a minuscule portion of them. She may be drugged by a customer, sexually harassed by a manager. And she may be fired if she speaks up. I suppose this is why I’m still here, in red glitter stilettos, still stripping and still fighting, twenty-three years after we successfully unionized the Lusty Lady: to keep reaching my hand out, to remind her and all strippers we can change things again. We can, we can, we can.

We are.

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