Live Nude Girls Unite

In the fall of 1999, the old fashioned sign for the Capitol Theater in Olympia, Washington displayed: LIVE! NUDE! GIRLS! UNITE! At first glance one might think it was going to be a show of sex workers dancing for a curious audience. The line of people gathered in the front of the theater to buy their tickets wrapped around the corner. Some came from as far away as California and Alaska to view a rough cut video filmed, produced, and directed by a stripper from the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. Julia Quiery helped the Lusty Lady become the first unionized strip club in the country and she wanted others to know how it was done.

On a daily basis for four years Julia Quiery and other women at the Lusty Lady were subjected to racism; only one woman of color could be on stage at the same time, and it was a given that “busty blondes” were the most popular dancers. There were scheduling issues that led to employee financial difficulties; each dancer could only work 16 hours a week and no more than two shows in a row. Exploitation was lurking behind every corner. The peep show booths were one way, so the dancers couldn’t see if the person watching them had a camera. Some women ended up on the Internet, others in low class porn movies.

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 Service Employees International Union. Once they were able to convince union representatives they were serious in their desire to form a union, organizing began in earnest.

After a year of union organizing, and five months of often bitter contract negotiations, the Exotic Dancers Union Employees provided what the dancers asked for. The contract guaranteed work shifts for the 70-75 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. Thirty cashiers and janitors won increased wages and improved health benefits.

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 in August of 1997, employees at the Lusty Lady voted overwhelmingly for union representation. The theater responded by engaging the legal services of a law firm widely known for effectively and aggressively fighting unions. Negotiations preceded slowly, much to the frustration of the SEIU and the dancers, as the opposing lawyers 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.

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 was reciently scheduled — at the theater’s initiative, which Batey also sees as a good sign. Federal mediators were 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. They 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 piercing 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.