Organized Labor's Newest Heroes: Strippers

Exotic dancers are fighting back against unfair wages, and last week they scored a landmark victory.

Charlie Riedel/AP Images

The words "labor dispute" make a lot of people imagine big men on a picket line. This, despite the fact that the high-profile workers' struggles of the past year happened in jobs dominated by women stuck with low wages and little respect: from domestic workers securing benefits in New York state, to Chicago's teachers' strikes, to this week's Black Friday actions organized across the country against Wal-Mart. There's another group of women we should add to this list, women who have been continually fighting for their rights at work, who are met with disbelief and retaliation when they stand up, and smirking headlines and punny scorn even when they win.

Last week, strippers employed by the Spearmint Rhino chain won an unprecedented $13 million settlement in Federal court, the result of a class action suit to restore back wages and contest their status as independent contractors of the clubs. Deciding in the dancers' favor is U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips, best known for ruling "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" unconstitutional in 2010. It's one of the largest financial settlements awarded to dancers at a major chain in the United States—with 20 locations worldwide, and though Spearmint Rhino would not release this information, it's fair to estimate with several hundred if not several thousand dancers working in their clubs in the United States. In sex workers' ongoing fight for the same rights on the job that any worker should expect, will the dancers' case be a tipping point in the strip club business? "Spearmint Rhino is a big brand." says Bubbles Burbujas, a stripper and one of the co-founders of the popular sex work blog Tits and Sass. "There's no way this won't have an effect."

It's definitely a big win for the 14 dancers named in the suit, but also for dancers in California. Judge Phillips ruled that within 30 days Spearmint Rhino must stop charging dancers what are known as "stage fees" for the right to work. Phillips also ruled that the chain is required to grant all dancers in their clubs employee status within six months, ending the illegal practice of classifying dancers as independent contractors while also placing workplace demands on them that far exceed that legal status. By managing dancers like employees but putting them on the books as independent contractors, club owners get out of paying dancers the benefits they're legally entitled to, which could include worker's compensation, unemployment, and health insurance if they qualify. Owners and management alike tell dancers they're independent, but they still exercise control over dancers on the job, routinely using the kinds of restrictive rules on breaks and conduct you've come to expect of Wal-Mart, not the mythically "anything goes" world of sex work.

"This is a great result," says attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who who specializes in tipped employees and independent contractor misclassification cases, and has represented dancers in class action law suits in several states. "It will put a lot of money in the pockets of women in this industry, but it will also send a clear message to clubs across this country that they should not misclassify dancers as independent contractors. When they look at these numbers in these lawsuits, they realize it's not worth it."

Dancers have brought suit after suit over illegal tip-sharing and misclassification as independent contractors for over 15 years now, starting with a string of high profile settlements in California in the late 1990's, leading to the founding of the Exotic Dancers' Alliance. (Disclosure: I'm not only a writer, but I was also a member of the Exotic Dancers Union, SEIU Local 790, from 2003 to 2006. "No justice, no piece.") At the same time, corporate chains like Spearmint Rhino, Deja Vu, and others have been buying up or pricing out the smaller clubs that tended towards giving dancers more control at work. The corporate consolidation of strip clubs is not that different than what's hit small businesses all over the country, only almost no one stood up to chase the Hustler Club out of town on a workers'-rights platform.

Unfortunately, when dancers win settlements for back wages, if the suits don't make it to trial, they have limited effect to set precedent and make sustained change the business. Hima B., a former dancer and the director of License to Pimp, a documentary about strippers and labor conditions, reported that clubs just institute new policies to illegally take dancers' tips, like several clubs in San Francisco using "piece rate" systems and quotas, where dancers must perform a set number of lap dances each shift, giving the house a percentage of each dance.

In response to a class action suit against a neighboring strip club in Montana, said Bubbles Burbujas, the club where she works started giving dancers paychecks—but management still illegally retained a portion of dancers' tips. Dancers in this club who were earning the same per shift before the lawsuits were also now going home with less. Before the move to the paycheck system, dancers paid a $25 stage fee per shift, as well as tips to bouncers and the DJ, "but we kept the rest of our dance money," she explained. "Now you hand over $70 of the first $100 you make, and you get a minimum wage paycheck, where you get back 30 percent or 40 percent of that."

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Melissa Gira Grant is a New York-based writer and journalist. Her work on sex, politics, and technology has appeared The NationWiredGlamourThe GuardianIn These Times, and The Washington Post, among other publications. She's the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014).

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