Exotic Dancers Union members, May Day 2008

Podcast episode about the workers at the Lusty Lady strip club in San Francisco who in 1997 were the first women who managed to unionise a strip joint in the United States, and who later took it over and ran it as a workers’ co-operative.

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More information

Antonia WCH.jpg
Via Antonia’s Instagram

Soldiers of Pole
Cinnamon Maxxine
Old Lusty Lady website

MEDIA

lusty booth.jpg
The dancing booth at the Lusty 
union photo.jpg
Lusty Lady workers parade float, 2012

Short video about the Lusty Lady co-operative:

Short video filmed with workers just before the club closed:

Short video about the Lusty closing party (thanks to Trevor Crane for permission to use audio from this clip in our episode):

Merch
To celebrate sex workers’ organising we have produced a range of commemorative merch combining artwork from @ripbambi and the Atelier Populaire from May 1968. Check it out here

sex workers crop top mockupsex workers T-shirt mockupsex workers sweatshirt mockupstomp capital button mockup

Acknowledgments
As always, thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Thanks also to the following people:
Vixen Noir, for the theme music – Lusty Lady. You can buy it here or stream it on YouTube here 
Episode cover photo by Matthew Roth
Editing by Louise Barry of Audio Interference

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Transcript

In 1997, the Lusty Lady in San Francisco became the first strip club to be unionized by its workers, who won big improvements to their paying conditions. Not content to stop there, they later took over the club and ran it as the world’s first worker-controlled strip joint. This is Working Class History.

[Theme music] Vixen Noir:

Ooh, look at those ladies in there. Oh my gosh. Sexy, sexy, sexy. (Singing).

John:

The Lusty wasn’t a conventional strip club. It was a peep show. Cinnamon Maxxine worked there from 2007 until 2011, and explains how its business model worked.

Cinnamon Maxxine:

Well, the money was from clients and customers that would come in and slide. At first, it was coins. I guess it used to be 25 cents or something for a few seconds. A window would go up, and there would be somebody dancing on the other side. Later, after it co-oped, it started taking dollars. Customers would slide dollar bills into a dollar slide. A window would go up. Like I said, there would be somebody dancing on the other side. There were also video booths. Those are pretty popular, but of course, there’s nobody in there with you.

John:

Antonia Crane started work there 12 years earlier in 1995.

Antonia Crane:

I had just gotten sober. I was a dancer, also. I was a dancer in ’92 at the clubs. I had a drug and alcohol problem. I was just getting sober, and getting on my feet, and getting my life back together. I had a few months, sober. I literally got sober, and a few months later, realized that I owed all these people money. I was trying to build a beautiful life and fix the wreckage that I had created. I realized that I needed to start dancing again.

The girls that work there were incredibly together. They had bicycles, and skateboards, and savings accounts, and partners. I was just a young punk, dyke stripper with stitches on my wrists and a dog collar. I walked into a place where there was this incredible group of women working. They weren’t going to take any shit, and so I got onboard.

It’s kind of the opposite narrative that you hear. Some people talk about the downward spiral and how they ended up a stripper, shooting drugs. I did the opposite. I was trying to get my life together, so I decided to start stripping again so that I could get my life back together, and have some personal agency, and pay my rent, and get my driver’s license back, and all of that.

John:

The Lusty had a really diverse alternative and queer workforce, of around 80, who were nearly all women apart from a handful of male support staff. There was a great camaraderie which was a big help for organizing efforts.

Pandora:

I would say it was much more diverse than a lot of the other clubs at the time as far as body types and styles than… You could have tattoos. You could have whatever, short hair, long hair, blue hair, whatever you wanted.

John:

This is Pandora who back then, danced under the name, Princess. She worked at Lusty from around 1999/2000 up until 2013.

Pandora:

I mean, we would just goof around. There was just a lot of laughing, and a lot of support, and love there. Part of the dressing room was sort of underground. It felt like this little sort of rabbit world. You’d come in, and you’d punch in, and you’d go downstairs. As soon as you went in there, it was like you were in this magic sort of pink bubble. Everything just was sort of sparkly. There were just boobs everywhere and hugs. Everyone was chasing each other around and smacking each other on the butt in a consensual way, not in a sexual- harassment-at-work way. The fantasy that we’re all down there having pillow fights… Mostly, there was a lot of knitting and studying. It felt like a really safe, happy place to me.

John:

Another feature of the Lusty, which also made it easier to organize, was its payroll system.

Pandora:

I mean, one of the things that the Lusty did have that made it easier than other clubs is even before they co-oped, the amount of money that someone else made or didn’t, didn’t affect how much money you did or didn’t, so there wasn’t a competitive vibe. That’s one of the things with the other clubs, is your coworkers are also your competitors. I made more money. It went on everyone’s paychecks, so everyone was supporting me and vice versa. That helped. I think that was something that we have that other clubs didn’t have.

John:

Despite the upsides of working there, the Lusty wasn’t without its problems.

Pandora:

The main issues were if you were going to miss a shift or something, that in order to get someone to cover your shift, that you would have to get someone who, basically, what their standard of beauty was or what their idea of what they thought would make more money was. Someone had to have your hair length or longer, your breast size or larger, your weight or lower.

Cinnamon Maxxine:

If a Black dancer couldn’t come into work, she had to find somebody as light as her or lighter to go in.

Pandora:

If you got sick, in order to get someone to cover your shift, they had to meet all of those criteria, which also meant that anyone who fit all of those criteria couldn’t get anyone to cover their shift. Those people actually had a harder time, so they’d get fired because they couldn’t get someone to cover their shift, or they would come into work sick. We work in a small glass box altogether, so they would be in there, coughing and sneezing, get everyone else sick. It was a disaster. Then the other issue that we dealt with was with the Private Pleasures booth.

Cinnamon Maxxine:

In a one-on-one booth, instead of kind of like a fishbowl like the main stage used to be, it’s just one window with one dancer on one side and one client on the other. Shows started, I think, at $20 or $40 bucks in there. They started off at a baseline of that, whereas the main stage started off at a $1. The dancer in the Private Pleasures booth got a certain percentage, a direct percentage, of that money that they made in that booth while the rest of it went to the house. In Private Pleasures, you did have a chance to make significantly more money.

Pandora:

They did discriminate against people based on race.

Cinnamon Maxxine:

Performers of color were frequently making less money than their white counterparts.

Pandora:

The Private Pleasures booth, which is where you made a lot more money… They didn’t get the shifts because the club obviously is making their money first. They were of the opinion that they wouldn’t make as much money or were less desirable to customers, and so they didn’t give them those shifts, or they didn’t give them the optimal shifts, like a Friday night or something. That was a really unfair labor practice.

They were saying that they were trying to have variety on stage, but they only would have one woman of color on stage at a time, which is sort of as if to say one of them is the same as any other one. It’s kind of like, what? You can have as many white women on stage in a shift as you wanted. It’s not to say we’re varied in breast size, or weight, or hair color. For women of color, they could just have one. If you unpack that, it’s pretty awful.

Then the other thing was the issue with filming and videotaping. The club used to have some windows that were one-way glass, so the customers could see the dancers, but the dancers couldn’t see the customers. They started filming dancers. Then this was when the internet was starting, and people were able to upload things and share them. You’d never knew if images of yourself were floating around, being sold without your knowledge or consent, and where they would end up. That was a big issue.

The other thing about the two-way glass is that you couldn’t see the customers. You couldn’t see, besides filming, what they were doing. There were some incidences where there was one person who was… They came in and they started firing a gun at the stage. If the dancers could have seen it, they could have seen, oh my gosh, there’s a gun, and gotten out of the way. They couldn’t see them, so they were shooting. No one got hit, fortunately, but it was pretty scary. That was another point of the things that they wanted changed.

Then the very last thing was… You’d work up to top wage. You’d start at a certain wage. You’d work up pretty fast to top wage. As soon as you hit top wage, they’d start looking for reasons to fire you. All of a sudden, you were under this microscope. Any little mistake… The first time around, I was let go for fixing my shoe on stage.

John:

Of all the issues there were, the one that caused the most anger was the one-way glass.

Antonia Crane:

There were mothers, and teachers, and people who were having anonymity in their lives as peep show performers, completely nude. We were being filmed, and we didn’t know what that meant then. This was 1995. Also, when we’re talking about a live peep show, we’re not just talking about a little Instagram video where you see a body, and it’s very edited and pretty tame. We’re talking about they could see the inside of our bodies. They were literally seeing pink. This was really intense, that we were being filmed.

John:

These things had all been raised with management, but they didn’t do anything about it. Then one day, for the workers, there was a final straw.

Antonia Crane:

We were all on stage together. Star saw a red light, and she said, “Move over. You’re being filmed.” We were like, “What are you talking about?” It looked like the end of a cigarette burning. We had this one-way glass in certain booths. This is in the early to mid ’90s. People were coming in with cameras and filming us. She stormed off stage. She was just like, “Fuck this shit,” basically. She was 19 at the time, total badass. She asked the manager. She told them that we were being filmed. They said, “If you don’t like it, you can go work somewhere else.” Then she came back on stage at some point, maybe that day, maybe a few minutes later, and just said, “I’m going to change things around here.” Then we did change things around there.

John:

They started to organize themselves. Unusually for strip clubs, Lusty Lady workers were legally designated as employees, unlike most dancers who are classified as independent contractors. In U.S. labor law, this gives you the right to form a union. Antonia explains how they would organize.

Antonia Crane:

This was 1995. It was all about meeting together and leaving messages on our answering machines. We would meet before work. The Lusty Lady had a reputation for being women-run and women-managed. This woman, June, was the owner. We had show directors who were ex-dancers. This was a really interesting climate. They were calling their own meetings and trying to divide and conquer us.

John:

While this was going on, the workers approached the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, a union mostly consisting of service industry and health workers. The SEIU accepted the application. The Lusty Lady workers formed Local 790, the Exotic Dancers Union. Initially, management was shocked by the unionization effort and quickly offered some concessions to try to buy off the workers, offering to drop the one-way glass and the racist one-woman-of-color-per-shift rule, but after three months of negotiations, they weren’t giving into anything else. The women decided they had to take some action.

Antonia Crane:

Basically, we had to get management to acknowledge our union. Of course, they didn’t. We had to have an election. We had an election. Meanwhile, Julia Query was making a wonderful documentary about it. During part of this, they were firing us or trying to fire us, and intimidating us, and calling random meetings. We decided to have a… What you do is you slow down production. If you’re making pencils, you stop making pencils. We had a no-pink day, where we wouldn’t show any of our genitalia. We wouldn’t show our pussies. You slow down production in order to show them that they wouldn’t have a business if it weren’t for you. That’s very true in the sex industry. There would be no sex industry if there weren’t women willing to perform and be entertainers. There are a lot of ways that you can do that. Back then, we would just cover our pussies and had a no-pink day.

John:

On-the-job industrial action can be extremely powerful. However, if you’re going to take it, you need to be prepared to respond if management tried to fight back, discipline workers, or make an example of anyone. The workers at the Lusty had prepared for this. When management fired a dancer, a single mom called Summer, for taking part in the action, they walked out in strike and set up a picket line. A couple of dancers stayed on the stage with messages calling for customers to stop spending money at their club, written on their hands, that they’d show them when the windows went up. The customers left the club. After the last customer left, management then decided to lock out the workers for three days as a punishment and just keep open the video booth. The women kept up their picket line, chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, don’t go in to masturbate,” to potential customers. While the lockout was ongoing, they had some pretty amazing instances of solidarity.

Antonia Crane:

We were also picketing at some point. A girl was asking us on the picket line. She said, “Oh.” She didn’t want to cross our picket line. She said, should she work there? She literally got a job that day, and then came out, and joined us on the picket line.

John:

The workers showed their power to shut down the club and stop its income. After a couple of days, management caved, ended the lockout, and rehired Summer. After the dispute ended, realizing that the women were too well-organized and committed to be beaten, and facing the threat of more strikes, management began negotiating in good faith with the union. After a few more weeks of negotiations, management finally agreed to a pay rise and many of the other demands.

Pandora:

We got rid of the… where the customers could see the dancers, and the dancers could not see them, so we could see all the customers all the time. There would be no filming without our consent because later, webcams and things became popular. They couldn’t just say, “We’re just going to film you on stage and make money off of it. There’s nothing you can… ” That protected us against that later. The glass, the practice of people being scheduled based on what they look like… Instead, it was seniority. Just sort of like any other job, that what you look like wasn’t what determined how many shifts you got or what time you got your shift. A point system was put in. Basically the reasons for being fired or not were things that would… Same with any other job, like being late a certain number of times, or not showing up, or things like that. Instead of just what you look like… Oh, you’ve gained some weight, so you’re fired. Or you could just get any other competent dancer to come in and cover your shift.

We went back and forth, and back and forth, and finally agreed on most of the things in the contract. The really sticky point that we weren’t able to get, unfortunately, was the closed shop. They ended up with open shop, which basically means that being a union member is optional to employees. That’s usually used as a tool for union busting. They wouldn’t budge on it, so they finally conceded, and we had went for open shop. The compromise we came up with that was that whenever anyone had their hiring process, that a shop steward has to be present so that they can’t talk you out and talk to you about joining the union right then so that management can’t bully people into not joining because if they have a certain percent that are not union members, then they can start union busting. We just said, “Okay, well, if you’re going to do that, then we’re going to make sure that we’re always there when you talk to new employees.”

John:

Despite not winning a union shop, the workers were successful in maintaining a really high union density with over 90% of workers voluntarily joining the union. For the employees, daily life at the Lusty got a lot better, but over time, the owners seemed to lose interest in the club and pretty much started running it into the ground. The workers decided to take things into their own hands.

Pandora:

Around, I think it was 2002, 2003, sort of the numbers weren’t adding up. People asked to see them. There were a lot of errors. That happened. People weren’t getting paid what they should, and things weren’t getting fixed, and things weren’t getting taken care of. There was some looking into the books, and things weren’t quite right. Then also, they were losing money. Internet porn was happening. A lot of other things were happening that were making it less lucrative for what we were doing, but they could have been doing a lot of things to bring in more money. They were doing no advertising. They didn’t do any capital improvements to the theater. They just sort of let it fall apart. No one knew we were there. They just didn’t care anymore. The people that had owned it were just over it and just kind of letting it run itself down.

They were going to let it close, but for all the dancers that worked there, they had worked so hard. The union and everything else… I mean, it’s only a couple of years, five, six years since we’d gotten the union thing going. They’re like, “Okay. Well, then we’re just going to close.” It felt like, no, we just made it good in here. So we decided to pool our money and buy the business. There was some back and forth negotiating with that, and then bought it for… I think it was $400,000, was the initial payment. Then we paid it off over the course of five years. We made a big payment, and then everyone brought in and became a shareholder. Then we paid off buying the business and then became shareholders of the business.

John:

It was after the Lusty became a co-op that Cinnamon started working there.

Cinnamon Maxxine:

I bumped into an old friend who told me about the Lusty. I thought it sounded amazing. I called and got an audition. I fell in love with the place. It felt really flexible, at least more in the business hours that I wanted to work, which was nighttime. It paid well. I only had to work a few days a week to make the pay that I would have been making at Safeway. The Lusty Lady was the only place that would ever hire me as a dancer because of my size and because the dancer community can be pretty racist.

John:

Here, Pandora and Cinnamon explain a bit more about how the co-op worked.

Cinnamon Maxxine:

That’s when basically everybody who works in the business owns a little bit of the business. They all make decisions together on how the business is going to continue to run. That’s what the Lusty Lady did. They were, I believe, the first strip club to do that.

Pandora:

We had our articles of incorporation and all that stuff, just like anything else. There’s a board of directors, and then certain people who were the board of directors, which was by election of the membership. Then there were certain committees for different things, PR committee or whatever, and then a couple of management positions that were overseen by the board of directors. You have what we call the madams, which were the dancers who did the scheduling for the dancers.

Cinnamon Maxxine:

When you want to start in management, dancers can be voted into being a junior madam. From there, if you want to be lead madam, the board of directors would hire you. You’d have to be working there already. They wouldn’t necessarily hire an outside person. They’d hire a dancer who’d already been working there for a while. We had meetings, as I recall, every three months. We had quarterly meetings. Before the meeting, we would take… People will write notes to the managers, which you’d call madams at the time, and submit these things to be put on the agenda. Then at the beginning of each meeting, we would also take last-minute agenda items that we wanted to try to get through. Towards the end, while we were supposed to have four meetings a year, we were starting to have more and more frequent meetings because the business really needed to be figured out. We would take votes. Sometimes it was a yes, no via pieces of paper, kind of thing, but most of the time, it was just a raise-your-hands kind of situation. Voting would happen right then.

John:

While the racist scheduling practices of the previous management had been stopped, an issue still remained in the co-op for workers of color, which was that in the Private Pleasures booth where workers could make more money by charging what they wanted, women of color continued to make less than white workers.

Cinnamon Maxxine:

At some point, there came an issue where, how do we give these people the space that they need while also trying to help them make the money that they deserve without taking the work away because that’s punishment that they don’t deserve. The white folks were like, “If they can’t make money, then they don’t deserve that spot, or they don’t deserve to be in the booth.” That’s not how you solve that problem at all.

When I worked there, I think that most people tried to understand, and make a difference, and realized that those practices were problematic. I think that other problems arose, but I think for the most part, people tried to understand. However, I think that there needed to be more work done. I think that people wanted to believe that they were doing the right thing because they owned a piece of the business, and they wanted to do what was right by the business without understanding the complexities of race, and classism, and all of the issues that can arise in any kind of work environment.

I saw some situations get handled very poorly. I think it was not only around dancers, but just, again, the general work environment, as well. It was really hard to talk about that stuff. A lot of folks said they didn’t understand. For me, as a person of color, it’s hard to continue to try to explain the situation over and over when I feel like you’re actually just refusing to understand.

John:

The union continued to play a role in the co-op, representing individuals on cases to do with discipline, grievance, and sickness. Union activists and shop stewards like Pandora also kept pushing for further improvements to working conditions, which was now easier to achieve as the workers had more say in the management.

Pandora:

I got us closed shop, which meant that everyone who was hired, all employees, were automatically in the union. Then successorship language, which meant that the contract rolled forward no matter who owned the business. Then sick days… Employees could, like any other job, if you could miss a shift, that you would be able to get sick days because we noticed that even though people could get shifts covered by someone, they often came to work sick anyway because it’s the end of the month. It’s an hourly job. It’s not salaried. Rent would be due. You would have cold or something, and you’d come in anyway and get everyone else sick. Also, it’s miserable to work when you’re sick. To me, that was, in my life, the things that I’m proud of that I ever did. I felt like doing that. I felt like a superhero, and I’m still tooting my own horn about it.

John:

While some people see workers’ self-management as the aim of socialism, communism, anarchism, or whatever you want to call it, unfortunately, workers being in charge of a business in capitalist society aren’t immune to market forces in that society, like pressure from competitors to keep prices low.

Cinnamon Maxxine:

We lasted for a while as the world’s first strip club. We were able to coast on that for a really long time. The style of the strip club that it was, it being a peep show so that people could go in, watch porn, and also see live naked ladies, and masturbate, that was different than the other clubs in the area. I think that’s what carried us for so long. Without a single person or just a couple of people to make the hard business decisions, I think leaving it to sometimes upwards of 70 people, trying to come to one decision, was really hard. There was a lot of stuff going on. We couldn’t come to decisions. Especially towards the end when it was going out of business, decisions needed to be made, and nobody wanted to make the hard decisions. We couldn’t come to agreements at the end. It ruined friendships.

John:

The workers had inherited a bad financial situation from the previous owners. Then one day, in 2013, they got some devastating news from their landlords, a corporation called Deja Vu, which already owned every other strip club in the city and a lot more around the U.S.

Pandora:

We were flatlining as far as our income was going, but our expenses were going up. Rent was going up. The previous person who was doing the bills, and the booking, and books… How can I say? They really were not doing them. It was a disaster. We kind of got handed kind of this big mess. We did our best, but we were just scraping by. I had gone from making $26, $27 an hour to $10. It wasn’t sustainable for any of us. We were all just exhausted. Then we were informed of a renewal of the lease, that they were going to triple the rent.

John:

The co-op hired someone to help them try to raise funds and restructure the business, but they ended going AWOL, leaving the workers high and dry with only, really, one decent option left.

Pandora:

We looked at the numbers, and we looked at the projection and where it was going, and it looked like probably in the coming year, it looked like it wasn’t going to work. We figured out that rather than having to file for bankruptcy and go out with a bunch of debt and whatever, that the best thing to do would be making sure everyone got their co-op buy-in back, making sure all the bills were paid, making sure everything was good.

John:

The person engaged by the court to help them had a meeting with Deja Vu, but didn’t tell the workers about it. They found out later that they would have to leave the premises within only two weeks or have to pay $50,000.

Pandora:

That really left us in a pickle. We announced it, and gave everyone their layoff notice, and scrambled, and got everything paid. Then the next two weeks was just kind of a nonstop party, which was great. We did it. We got out of there in time. We managed to run the theater up until the days before. Then we had to clean it out. That’s a whole other saga unto itself. Couple of strippers having to move a 500-pound safe out the front door with a piece of rope… It was ridiculous. We did it.

Having to do everything in such a rushed manner meant that we just had no time to figure out the best way to do everything. We just had to do it the fastest way possible. We still did pretty well. We’re stripping. We’re moving safes. We’re boxing up all the paperwork and moving it off to a safe location, literally, all at the same time. We just slept in there. It was insane. It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

John:

The workers of the Lusty Lady and hundreds of their supporters held a lively closing parade, ending up with a twerking party on the streets of San Francisco. Going past another establishment owned by Deja Vu, the crowd took the opportunity to vent their frustration at the Lusty’s former landlords.

[Audio recording of the protest] Crowd:

Fuck you, Deja Vu. Fuck you, Deja Vu. Fuck you, Deja Vu. Fuck you, Deja Vu. Fuck you, Deja Vu. Fuck you, Deja Vu.

John:

Today dancers continue to be massively exploited by employers who take advantage of their contracted status and various legal mechanisms to eat into their pay.

Antonia Crane:

You cannot charge a person to work for you. They’ve gotten away with this in the sex industry for decades. I’ve been a stripper now for 26 years. This hasn’t changed, this thing where the strip club owners find loopholes in order to charge the worker to work at the place. They call it stage fees or mandatory tip out. They have various titles, but don’t be confused by the title. It’s literally wage stuff. There’s a lot of ways they do this. Literally, what it is… Simply put, the easiest way to put it is that they’re just charging workers to work there.

What I would equate it to is they’re trying to treat us like hairdressers that charge you for the chair, for example, to come in and use the salon. You have a receptionist, or you have somebody washing towels, but you’re charged sort of rent. We’re not doing that. We’re not selling your products. We’re not cutting hair. We’re not coming into the strip club and building shelves. We are literally entertainers. It’s sort of like, we have more in common with actors and dancers, ballet dancers, than we do bartenders because we’re not moving a product. We’re ourselves. We’re coming in and providing our own music.

The money that it takes to be an entertainer is colossal. The hair, the gas… I work at a club that’s an hour and 40 minutes away. The driving, the shoes, all of it, the maintenance of a performer… They’ve gotten away with this for 30 years or more, charging women to dance there. It has to do with this, for lack of a better word, tip mentality, which is that you’re my product, so I get half of what you are making out there.

How does this make sense? It’s because it’s women’s work. It’s because it’s women doing the work that they feel entitled to our bodies. This is about feminism. This is about a system that has historically exploited us. The system has to change. The way to change it is to unionize.

John:

On the subject of feminism, while most feminists see sex workers’ organizing as an important part of the movement for women’s liberation, some variantly oppose it. For example, when we at WCH have shared the organizing manual that Lusty Lady workers put together to help other dancers organize, we’ve received a lot of comments from these feminists saying we should take down and that it’s wrong to support women in the sex industry organizing for better conditions.

Cinnamon Maxxine:

I say that’s not real feminism. It’s just toxic masculinity disguised as giving a shit for women’s health. It’s not real solidarity. It’s not real feminism. I don’t know if you’ve heard this term. We call those SWERFs, which are Sex Worker-Exclusionary Radical Feminists. You’re not really a feminist if you’re not actually supporting all women.

Pandora:

I think that they don’t understand sex work or what it’s like. They’re mixing it up with trafficking. They think that everyone who does sex work hates it, doesn’t want to do it, wouldn’t choose it, only does it because they have no other choices. I danced for about 15 years, and I loved it. If I wasn’t old and my knees weren’t crackly, I would still be doing it. I love dancing. I love stripping. I love everything about it.

Antonia Crane:

This is about feminists who don’t know what they’re talking about, who think that sex work is something in which we are doing under duress or some system of coercion, and that’s not the case. It’s this funny expectation that because I’m an entertainer… Would you ask an actor, “Oh, did you have fun at your job today? Was it fun? Oh, if it’s not fun, then why are you doing it?” It’s like, guess what? It’s work. It’s complex. No, I don’t always love my job. We’re allowed to not have fun at our jobs. We have every right to make a living and to have a sane and safe work environment. It’s called work. You show up. You suit up. You do your job. There’s a very strange expectation of sex workers that we have to be there having fun. It has to do with a serious delusional confusion about what sex work is, and what work is, and how we look and think about work, and what we think of women’s work, and what we think of the sex industry and the stigma there.

John:

Of course, that’s completely right. If work was so great, employers wouldn’t have to pay us to turn up. Plenty of us hate our jobs, at least sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t organize to make things better. The sex industry is no different. If you do oppose sex workers organizing, it basically just means you’re supporting pimps and strip club bosses making bigger profits and treating women worse. Really, that perspective doesn’t make any logical sense. Now some recent legal developments in the industry in the U.S. may open up new possibilities for workers.

Antonia Crane:

Today in California, and I believe, also, Washington state, now we are no longer classified as independent contractors, that we’re now employees. This is a rare window of opportunity we have to… It’s a slam dunk to unionize right now and change the system, which is incredibly exploitive. We can do that now. We can do it if they change the law. There are moves being made to buy corporations and tech companies because, of course, they want to take away workers, right? It’s about having workers’ rights and getting those human rights pieces in our workforce and being able to fight for healthy, sane, safe working conditions. You can do that if you unionize. It’s very, very hard to do that if you don’t.

Now we have the ability to do that. Literally, April 30th, in California, we’re now employees. I’ve been quietly watching this change and quietly hoping to do this. Finally, we are trying to do this. I have a group called Soldiers of Pole, SOP. We have a talk every Wednesday night where California strippers can virtually join the discussion and find out what we can do at the clubs and our steps forward to unionize. We’ve retained a lawyer. We’re looking for backing. We have four interested unions right now that we’re talking to.

John:

For Antonia, the struggle for better paying conditions in the sex industry continues.

Antonia Crane:

I am directing a documentary about the effort that we’re doing now, the organizing labor effort that strippers in California, particularly, are doing now called Soldiers of Pole. I have an incredible crew. Molly Stewart is my DP. She is award winning. She’s 25. She’s just incredible. Judd Bell… I have this incredible crew. We are actually filming the women of a certain Lusty Lady vintage and bringing them along. It’s about women helping other women. It’s about the Lusty Lady women helping today’s women, and the conversation about labor, and how we can lift other women up in this workforce, and what that looks like.

It’s a roller coaster ride right now because every time I go into work, it’s different. It’s getting worse in the corporate clubs, I’ll say. The clubs are really doing everything they can to commit fraud and to steal the minimum wage paycheck money because they’ve been evading federal and state taxes forever. They are actually stealing the money from the women’s paychecks. These things are happening every day. We’re documenting that process and most importantly, how women are unifying, and the conversations that we’re having with each other trying to improve this workforce together. Hopefully we will, again, have some successes. It’s the tiny successes that happen. You almost don’t even see it happening while it’s going on. We just show up, and listen to one another, and just keeping building and building until things change. You got to play the long game, which is what unionizing is about. It’s playing the long game.

John:

Shortly after our interview, Antonia helped organize a strike of dancers at the Crazy Girls Hollywood Club in L.A. against wage theft and sexual harassment on Friday, the 22nd of February, 2019.

[Audio recording of the picket] Crowd:

If you want to see us twerk, we’re not going to pay to work. If you want to see us twerk, we’re not going to pay to work. If you want to see us twerk, we’re not going to pay to work. Woo.

John:

A taste of that pioneering victory of the Lusty Lady continues to inspire her efforts today.

Antonia Crane:

It felt awesome to be a part of the coolest women in the world. It was really, really triumphant. It was definitely a win.

John:

Those experiences of the organizing campaign and the workers’ self-management afterwards also had a transformative impact on everyone else involved.

Cinnamon Maxxine:

I will probably never go back to working for another straight job again. I mean, at this point, it’s pretty much impossible due to mental health reasons for me, but that’s also why the Lusty Lady changed my life. It taught me that I deserve to work in an environment that meets my accessibility needs. If a job doesn’t do that, I should not have to force myself to do that.

Pandora:

Whenever dancers do anything that any other job does, it gets immediate attention. I mean, even when we went co-op, we made the news all over again. When we were in the news, even the tone of the coverage was like there was sort of almost a joke to it, like, “A bunch of strippers are unionizing. Can you believe it?” I guess the advice I would give to them is to not believe the idea that because they’re dancers, that they have any less ability to do it than anyone else. I mean, if you can hang upside down off a pole, what else are you scared of?

Cinnamon Maxxine:

I think that sex workers and adult entertainment workers need to absolutely organize themselves because no one else is going to do it for them. Nobody gives a shit about them. Nobody wants to see us succeed. If we don’t pull together and organize ourselves, we’re going to fall apart.

Antonia Crane:

We didn’t, I think, know what it really meant to do that, and what that was going to do, and how it was going to contrast with the lap dancing clubs, and what was going on there as corporations began to buy all of the clubs. I don’t think we knew what we were really getting into, which is sort of the best because you can really look back and say, “Wow. That was really incredible and stunning.” I’m so glad we’re still talking about it and that we can use it as proof and as a springboard and say, “We’ve done it before. We can do this again.”

Vixen Noir:

(Singing).

John:

Well, that’s all the time we have for today. I would strongly recommend checking out the film, Live Nude Girls Unite, which is a documentary by one of the workers about the original organizing effort at the club. We’ve got links to that, as well as to Antonia’s current campaigning in the show notes. We’ve also got a lot more info, photos, and videos of the Lusty Lady, including the organizing manual, which the women put together to help other sex workers organize. That’s on our website at workingclasshistory.com and linked to in the show notes, as well.

We hope you enjoyed this episode as much as we enjoyed putting it together. We’ve been working on it for months. It is one of our new wave of episodes we’re spending a lot more time putting together than before. We hope it shows. We’re going to be doing this through 2019, taking time out from our day jobs. Ultimately, it’s only going to be sustainable if we get more support to some Patreon. If you’d like to support our work and get benefits like exclusive early access to episodes, bonus audio, and more, please go to patreon.com/workingclasshistory.

Or we’d be grateful if you gave us a review on Apple podcasts or your favorite podcast app, or shared this episode on social media. Massive thanks to our Patreon supporters who make this podcast possible. Really, thank you very much. Thanks, also, to Vixen Noir for letting us use her track, Lusty Lady, as the theme music for this episode. You can stream it or buy it on links in the show notes. This episode was edited by Louise Barry. Thanks for listening. Catch you next time.

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