Sarah is required to pay the San Fernando Valley strip club where she works $90 every night that she dances. The managers call it a “drink incentive,” and at the end of the night she gets $72 of the fee back, which is her minimum wage for the six-hour shift, minus taxes. In other words, the California-based club makes Sarah and her co-workers pay their own hourly minimum wage, so they’re working at a loss from the moment they walk in the door.
On top of this, Sarah is expected to tip out the DJ and give a portion of her private lap dance fees back to the house. She goes home with whatever she earns from customers after all of these costs.
Versions of this payment structure exist in clubs around the state. Ironically, it’s a product of what should be positive change in the industry. Thanks to a recent court ruling, exotic dancers in California are now recognized as employees, entitled to minimum wage and labor protections. But as a result, club owners are devising devious new ways to profit off their work. In a business where performers are subject to discrimination, harassment and persistent stigma, and at a time when many are already struggling to earn a living, a group of strippers is fighting back.
Tip-outs and and private lap dance fees have been part of the terms of dancing in American strip clubs for a long time. But leveraging the dancer’s own money upfront — either via drink incentives or by having customers pay a middleman for the first 10 dances instead of giving their money directly to the stripper — is a newer tactic.
“Those things are ways for clubs to generate extra money on the backs of their performers,” said Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, a lawyer at a nonprofit firm that represents workers in employment cases.
It’s how club owners have responded to last year’s state Supreme Court decision that established a framework, known as the “ABC test,” for determining whether certain workers should be treated as employees rather than independent contractors. When the ruling was applied to exotic dancers, it classified them as employees, entitling them to the state minimum wage of $12 per hour (soon to be $15 per hour in Los Angeles County).
Antonia Crane, who has been stripping for 26 years, explained that the workforce “is being manipulated and forced to sign bogus contracts” that rope dancers into giving a majority of their earned tip money back to clubs. By using loopholes like the drink incentive, club owners “are charging us our own minimum wage,” she said.
“Every single club is just mowing right over [dancers] and lying to them and taking advantage of them,” said A.M., a Los Angeles activist who stripped for 17 years and uses her initials to protect her anonymity.
So far, the change in their officially recognized employment status has left dancers in California dealing with a set of new challenges. So Crane and A.M., alongside dozens of other Los Angeles-based strippers, are working to unionize dancers across Southern California and demand protections under state and federal law.
“Corporations are greedy and this is capitalism,” Crane said. “The only way the worker will have a voice is to unionize, because then management has to come to the table and negotiate with us.” She added that independent contractors are sometimes even barred by their employers from discussing the conditions of their work with one another.
Last December, at a meeting for sex worker activists, Crane helped create Soldiers of Pole, a grassroots group that aims to unionize the city’s thousands of exotic dancers. Soldiers of Pole got press attention in March when its members protested in front of Hollywood’s Crazy Girls club, which they say has been one of the worst offenders in terms of exploiting the new law to the club’s advantage. (HuffPost has reached out to Crazy Girls for comment.) The group is spreading the word with social media hashtags like #unionbabes and #badgirlslikegoodcontracts. Its logo is an illustration of three pole dancers lifting one another up into the air, an expression of the organization’s collaborative spirit.
“When you’ve been stolen from and treated badly your whole life, you don’t even know how to ask for what you want anymore. You just hand over the money.”
It used to be that strippers could work full time and make a decent living from tips. Although the public doesn’t realize it, the heyday of the strip club — when some women averaged thousands of dollars in one shift — is largely over for all but the biggest names in the industry. Today, dancers from Palm Beach, Florida, to Portland, Oregon, lament the effects of the trend toward digital sex work, occasional police crackdowns at clubs that scare off customers, and the tricky wage-bleeding tactics of unscrupulous club owners.
Business has been slow lately, said Sarah, who also spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, and many strippers were already struggling to survive. Now, on top of charging dancers just to come to work, clubs are cutting their hours to save money.
“The economy has gone down. Things have gotten more expensive, but our pay stays the same. We don’t get raises,” A.M. said, referring to the amount of money a dancer earns for giving a lap dance, which is typically set by and split with club owners and hasn’t significantly increased since the late 1990s. But as unionized employees, dancers would be able to “negotiate our own lap dance prices and potentially qualify to be able to get things like health care [and] worker’s comp,” she said.
Soldiers of Pole recently lobbied California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez to include exotic dancers under a new bill, AB-5, which will incorporate the ABC test for employment into the state labor code and further specify whom it applies to. The bill just cleared the Assembly and now heads to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it’s expected to pass. Although it was drafted with Uber and Lyft drivers in mind, Crane argued that strippers, too, deserve protection against the financial instability of the precarious gig economy.
Not all strippers agree. Stormy Daniels, for example, has loudly spoken out in favor of working as an independent contractor. And in April, a small group of dancers protested against mandated employee status on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, arguing that it takes away their agency. Soldiers of Pole held a counterprotest.
Soldiers of Pole’s first task, Crane said, is to oppose the campaign of misinformation perpetuated by club owners: “The corporate clubs are all about union-busting tactics and telling girls that it’s terrible to be an employee.”
“They’re confusing the dancers and trying to convince them that the government is taking away their rights,” A.M. added, when in reality, the court decision was meant to favor workers.
Spencer-Scheurich, the lawyer, added that an important benefit of employee status is protection under various labor laws that help hold workplaces accountable for the kind of mistreatment that strippers (usually cis women, but also trans women and nonbinary people) say they frequently face — from racial discrimination in hiring to sexual harassment to violent customers. In an industry that often operates like the Wild West, with little regard for government regulation, activists believe unionizing is the key to getting these protections enforced.
Through a multifaceted media campaign — which includes a website, an Instagram account, pastel-colored pamphlets distributed at sex worker meetings, and a forthcoming documentary — Soldiers of Pole hopes to educate dancers about their right to “basic safety precautions” on the job. A.M. called this effort the group’s current “biggest hurdle.”
Matilda, a full-service sex worker and former stripper who sued her old workplace for assault, said the competitive atmosphere within clubs makes it difficult to build labor solidarity. As a whole, dancers make up a workforce of people who “don’t have a lot of social or educational or financial capital, so they feel really vulnerable — which they are, because there’s like 50 girls waiting to replace any given dancer,” Matilda said. And a stripper who struggles to make ends meet might blame herself for being “old or ugly” instead of recognizing the broader systemic exploitation” at play, she added.
Additionally, while dancers confront the familiar David-vs.-Goliath struggle against moneyed management common in all industries, they also face social stigma rooted in misogyny and discomfort toward sex workers in particular. “The American attitude towards people who are doing low-respect work to begin with [and] towards women who monetize their sexuality is like, ‘You deserve whatever is coming to you,’” Matilda said. “And that’s compounded by these women asking for rights. It’s like, ‘You greedy whores.’”
A.M. believes unionization could go a long way in changing these perceptions. “People think that we’re dirty and gross, like our job is not a real job,” she said. “Becoming employees is one step closer towards legitimizing our jobs as strippers.”
Soldiers of Pole aligns itself with the broader sex workers’ rights movement, which includes efforts to decriminalize the sex trade. The movement kicked into high gear after the 2018 passage of SESTA/FOSTA, a bipartisan law intended to crack down on sex trafficking that activists say has made sex work more dangerous by eliminating online tools that workers use to screen clients and pushing indoor workers onto the streets. While stripping is a legal part of the adult industry, issues of bodily autonomy, social stigma and labor rights apply to all sex workers. The West Coast group stands in solidarity with the New York City dancers who famously went on strike in 2017 to protest unfair and discriminatory hiring.
Strippers have actually experimented with collective organizing before. Crane herself was involved in forming the Exotic Dancers Alliance in San Francisco in the late 1990s, when strippers at North Beach’s Lusty Lady peep show unionized in response to racist scheduling practices and being filmed without their consent. The club later became an employee-owned cooperative before the landlord raised the rent and shut it down in 2013.
This time around, Soldiers of Pole plans to join a large, existing labor union rather than create a new one just for strippers. Although the idea of a sex worker-only union is appealing, the activists are thinking pragmatically. “It’s better to have 50 people from an already established union come and picket with us,” Crane said, adding, “It’s difficult for an entirely 100% female workforce to picket, just materially,” since so many women are responsible for caretaking and other family obligations in addition to dancing. While San Diego has a new adult entertainment union, IEAU, Crane is looking to team up with those that have more resources — “muscle, boots on the ground” — and a history of successful campaigns.
Dancers will need those extra boots to make their demands heard. Sarah is sympathetic to the unionizing efforts but knows many dancers who are unable to forgo a night of income in order to attend a protest, especially with the management pressure to meet nightly and weekly “sales goals” or else risk being fired.
It doesn’t have to be this way. “When you’ve been stolen from and treated badly your whole life, you don’t even know how to ask for what you want anymore. You just hand over the money,” Crane said. “We’re working against that.” Right now, there are hundreds of people subscribed to the Soldiers of Pole’s email newsletter, and organizers hope that a schedule of upcoming events, including a comedy night featuring celebrated graphic artist Jacq The Stripper, will get more people involved and arm them with information.
Ultimately, the movement to unionize is about changing who holds the power in the sex industry and who profits off of women’s labor. “We need to be a collective, and we need the women to run the clubs. Men [are] monetizing this work that was never theirs to begin with,” Crane said. “The only thing they have is a building. They don’t own anything that we’re doing.”
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