In the fall of 1999, the old sign for the Capitol Theater in Olympia, Washington read: LIVE! NAKED! GIRLS! UNIT! At first glance, one might think that it was going to be a show of dancing sex workers for a curious audience. The line of people gathered in front of the theater to buy their tickets turned the corner. Some came from as far away as California and Alaska to see a rough cut video shot, produced and directed by a Lusty Lady stripper 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 Lusty Lady were subjected to racism; only one woman of color could be on stage at a time, and it was a given that “busty blondes” were the most popular dancers. There were scheduling problems that led to financial difficulties for employees; each dancer could only work 16 hours a week and no more than two shows in a row. Exploitation lurked around every corner. The peep show booths were in one direction, 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.
Faced with dancers’ concerns about the photographs and subsequent demands that the one-way mirrors be removed, the theater initially responded by dismissing the dancers’ concerns as frivolous. The angry dancers reached out to the Service Employees International Union. Once they were able to convince the union representatives that they were serious about forming a union, they began to organize in earnest.
After a year of union organizing and five months of often acrimonious contract negotiations, employees of the Exotic Dancers Union provided what the dancers asked for. The contract guaranteed work shifts for the 70-75 dancers, protection against arbitrary discipline and dismissal, automatic hourly wage increases, sick days, a contracted procedure for making complaints against management, and the removal of one-way mirrors from the peep show booths. Thirty cashiers and janitors got pay raises and better health benefits.
Working with the Lusty Lady dancers was definitely an eye-opening experience for the people of SEIU, according to Batey. “Before we started organizing at the Lusty,” she says, “people were unaware of the demographics of the dancers. We found that there were a lot of college students, women who were well educated both politically and academically, who were articulate feminists, that they were concerned about the most important problems, that they approached the problems from a social point of view”.
In an election in August 1997, Lusty Lady employees voted overwhelmingly for union representation. The theater responded by retaining the legal services of a law firm widely known for effectively and aggressively fighting unions. The negotiations proceeded slowly, much to the frustration of SEIU and the dancers, as the opposing lawyers appointed five different lawyers as their representatives in the negotiations.
When the theater fired a dancer (Summer, a single mother), allegedly to intimidate other dancers, the women responded angrily with a wildcat strike and protest outside the theater. A 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. Eventually, the theater relented, rehired the fired dancer, and began serious negotiations with the union.
According to Batey, there has been a large amount of interested response from the national press, including The New York Times, The Economist, Associated Press and United Press International. Batey notes that since the contract was ratified, Lusty’s owners have cooperated with the union and seem eager to re-educate their managers in the whys and wherefores of the new industrial order. Show managers who couldn’t believe they are now required to give union representatives the opportunity to speak to each new hire have been reminded that this is part of the new contract. A provisional 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 recently scheduled, at the initiative of the theatre, which Batey also sees as a good sign. Federal mediators were hired to train both management and employees on the practical aspects of the new contractual arrangement, also at the theater’s request.
While the Lusty Lady contract may be the first contemporary employment agreement in the US to cover strippers, it is unlikely to be the last. Before the San Francisco contract vote—in fact, even before dancers voted for union representation—Lusty Lady’s other theater in Seattle had taken note of the changing employment landscape. The theater began encouraging dancers to attend company-sponsored employee meetings during company-paid time. Non-union employee representatives elected at these meetings were recognized by theater management as spokespersons for the group, presumably to show dancers that the theater was interested in responding to their concerns and to discourage them from unionizing.
Following the ratification of the San Francisco contract, members of the San Francisco organizing committee traveled to Seattle, where they met with the Lusty Lady dancers. They were explained for the first time, from the dancers’ perspective, what the new union and contract was about, and how the new agreement would affect dancers in Seattle. In particular, they assured the Seattle dancers that the traditional arrangement would be maintained, under which dancers could travel back and forth between the two theaters, working in both. The Seattle theater management responded to the visit by San Francisco organizers with an immediate and unsolicited $1 an hour pay increase for all dancers. A controversial theatrical policy that required dancers with tattoos or piercings to cover their body adornments while performing was also repealed.
San Francisco dancers at the Market Street Cinema and New Century Theaters have approached SEIU about possible union representation, and Batey says she has also heard of possible union organizing for strippers in Houston, Texas.