Queering Labor Showcase #3: The Lusty Lady union/Exotic Dancers Union


The Lusty Lady Theater in San Francisco is “the world’s only unionized worker-owned peep-show cooperative” (Lusty Lady facebook page).  Before the union drive in 1996, management implemented numerous exploitative working policies for the strippers, including: unfair stage fees (meaning strippers had to pay for their stage time), racist policies (not letting women-of-color have as much stage time), and a total lack of security and safety precautions for the women. Dancer Miss Mary Ann explains one of the most harmful aspects of their work, pre-union:

“Three of the peepshow’s 13 windows were made of one-way glass; the customers could see us, but we couldn’t see them. For years, the Lusty Lady attracted amateur pornographers who’d set up shop behind the one-way windows. They videotaped and photographed us with alarming regularity, usually without our knowledge, and always without our consent or compensation. We only discovered how widespread the problem was because absent-minded cameramen would occasionally forget to cover the telltale, red “on” light before they started filming. Whenever a dancer looked down and noticed a red light in the window she was dancing for, her impulse was usually to break through the glass and destroy the film. But she’d always resist, fighting the wave of fury and nausea that would inevitably hit her, and call security instead. More often than not though, it would be too late, the guy would get away. Where would that stolen image resurface? Who would see it? How many others were making money off it?” (http://www.livenudegirlsunite.com/story.html )

The workers complained to their bosses, but the response they would get was to “get another job if [they] didn’t like it,” a common managerial use of scare-tactic rhetoric.  To fight this, a group of the strippers contacted the Exotic Dancers Alliance, who then put them in touch with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 790. Miss Mary Ann recalls:

“As soon as we announced our plans to unionize, management removed the one-ways, but also refused to recognize the union, and hired a law firm infamous for busting unions. Though the one-ways were gone, other problems at work were still festering: management played favorites, the company’s disciplinary policy was unwritten and inconsistently applied, dancers had their pay permanently cut in half for missing a staff meeting or calling in sick, were suspended for not “having fun” and were fired for even more ambiguous reasons. The female managers who enforced these draconian policies always did so with a smile, insisting we worked at “the best” strip joint in town because we got free hot chocolate and weren’t required to suck the boss’ dick in exchange for our employment. The company’s “sex positive, dancer-friendly” reputation was for the most part a hollow marketing ploy. We had virtually no recourse if we were treated unfairly, and anyone who complained was quickly labeled “disruptive” or “disrespectful.” We knew a union contract could temper these injustices and hold the company accountable for its actions.”

Like most union contract fights, it was a long and grueling struggle. More from Miss Mary Ann:

“We spent the months following the election attempting to negotiate a contract with the company. But instead of working out an agreement with us, company lawyers spent most of the bargaining sessions engaged in performance art that easily rivaled our own in caliber and affectation. Like a stripper who waits until the end of the song to wiggle out of her panties, the lawyers kept their client paying by teasing us with lengthy diatribes, each bargaining session’s invective more scathing than the last, the union’s planned demise just around the corner. They were paid by the hour, and their time-wasting strategies were impressive. For example, they spent days insisting that dancers were “sexually harassing” each other by using the “scurrilous, offensive and derogatory term pussy” in the workplace. (Despite the word’s “scurrilous” qualities, one lawyer in particular delighted in repeating this term as often as possible.) Never mind that our workplace is a smut palace, the lawyers repeatedly ignored our efforts to discuss things like sick pay and grievance rights, and flooded us with contract proposals outlawing foul-mouthed hussies instead.”

cover from the film made about the union

At one point, after being offered terrible contracts, the dancers organized an action in protest. Because The Lusty Lady is the only club in SF that allows customers to “watch live, gyrating, three-dimensional, Hustler-style beaver shots, inches from his face, for half the price of a donut,” the workers staged a “No Pink” day. During all their shifts, they danced nude, but kept their legs closed. As a result, management fired Summer, one of the dancers. For the two days that followed, workers picketed outside their workplace, and management responded with a lockout. But their persistence worked; management rehired Summer, and offered the dancers a raise.

In April of 1997, they ratified their first contract. Although not every demand was met, they did win “right, job security, sick pay, automatic raises, and a guarantee the one-way windows wouldn’t return” (http://www.livenudegirlsunite.com/story.html).

I am particularly interested in examining the rhetoric employed during the union drive, and also the ways in which this case study offers the groundwork for the necessary restructuring of progressive coalition-building.

First, SEIU allowed dancers to embrace a fairly radical, sex-positive agenda, and exemplified the ability for labor to connect with radical, sex-positive politics. For example, one strategy of sustaining a picketline is to arm strikers with a lot of great chants. The two-day picket after the “No Pink” day included chants such as: “2-4-6-8, Don’t come here to masturbate!”
SEIU allowed the workers to take charge of their campaign, and thus the priorities and tone of the whole campaign reflected their interests. For the Lusty Lady strippers, workers-rights cannot be separated from the body, and more specifically, the sexual body.  Certainly bodies are always instrumental in labor movement organizing—strikes, pickets, and, of course, labor, are all physical embodied acts. Too often the body, and also then sex radicalism, is dismissed as a distraction from the structures of oppression. In his latest book, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009), Jose Estaban Munoz critiques this type of argument in his analysis of David Harvey’s, History of Neoliberalism. Munoz writes :

“Some theorists of postmodernity, such as David Harvey, have narrated sex radicalism as a turning away from politics of the collectivity toward the individualistic and the petty….Harvey [says], “The narcissistic exploration of self, sexuality and identity became the leitmotif of bourgeois urban culture.” In this account, the hard-fought struggles for sexual liberation are reduced to a “demand for lifestyle diversification.” Harvey’s critique pits the “working class and ethnic immigrant New York” against elites who pursue “lifestyle diversification.” The experiences of working-class or ethnic-racial queers are beyond his notice or interest. Harvey’s failing is a too-common error for some, but not all, members of a recalcitrant, unreconstructed North American left.” (pp.30-31).

Munoz’s astute observations of the tendencies of the contemporary Left suggest that the need for campaigns like the Lusty Lady’s are now more important than ever.

It is without question that workers voices need to be present in union battles, and, that while organizer representation from unions like SEIU are often necessary, the campaign won’t work if it is not a testament to the workers themselves. Fortunately, SEIU did not shy away from the societal-taboos that arose in throughout the union battle. Perhaps this is because labor too knows what it’s like to be demeaned by the rhetoric and actions of the majority of society.

It is this point—the realization of common struggle—that I find to be most pressing in the discussion about labor and sex politics. As someone who believes in the value of the empowerment identity categories can bring, I also believe fully in the possibility of coalition-building as the only way to further any kind of progressive revolutionary movement. If labor continues to be articulated as a cohesive, static “working-class,” one in which white men are made most intelligible, how do we ever expect organized labor to grow?  [As StaceyAnn Chin states loudly in one of her most impassioned spoken word pieces, “ALL OPPRESSION IS CONNECTED, YOU DICK!” ]

Cathy J Cohen’s brilliant work on radical coalition-building speaks to this. In her essay, “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics? (1997), Cohen states:

…[Q]ueer politics, much like queer theory, is often perceived as standing in opposition, or in contrast, to the category-based identity politics of traditional lesbian and gay activism. And for those of us who find ourselves on the margins, operating through multiple identities and thus not fully served or recognized through traditional single-identity-based politics, theoretical conceptualizations of queerness hold great political promise. For many of us, the label “queer” symbolizes an acknowledgement that through our existence and everyday survival we embody sustained and multi-sited resistance to systems (based on dominant constructions of race and gender) that seek to normalize our sexuality, exploit our labor, and constrain our visibility. At the intersection of oppression and resistance lies the radical potential of queerness to challenge and bring together all those deemed marginal and all those committed to liberatory politics. “ (p.24)

I refer to queer theory, first, because it offers so much in terms of discussing potentiality from sites of resistance, and second to show why a not-explicitly queer labor struggle fits into the “queering labor showcase” project. Many of the women at Lusty Lady self-identified as queer, but even if they had not, Cohen’s definition of queerness as a way to recognize the “everyday survival we embody sustained and multi-sited resistance to systems,” encompasses the liminal existence of sex workers, resigned to rejected, queer space. Cohen continues,

“…[I]nherent in our new politics must be a commitment to Left analysis and politics. Black feminist as well as other marginalized and progressive scholars and activists have long argued that any political response to the multilayered oppression that most of us experience must be rooted in a Left understanding of our political, economic, social, and cultural institutions fundamentally, a Left framework makes central the interdependency among multiple systems of domination. Such a perspective also ensure that while activists should rightly be concerned with forms of discursive and cultural coercion, we also recognize and confront the more direct and concrete forms of exploitation and violence rooted in state-regulated institutions and economic systems.” (p. 26)

Cohen’s statements address the urgent need for queer/sex-positive politics to merge with insidious material structures. Munoz might respond that for queers of color, understanding that connection is not a choice but an inescapable reality. (that is, queer sex-workers of color  are intertwined with systemic oppression, so sexual identity and modality is not embodied as a radical postmodern privilege, but a simultaneously oppressive and liberatory way of life). Furthermore, she posits a solution to the the problematics of identity politics, and projects a vision for progressive organizing:

“I contend…that the radical potential of queer politics, or any liberatory movement, rests on its ability to advance strategically oriented political identities arising from a more nuanced understanding of power. One of the most difficult tasks in such an endeavor (and there are many) is not to forsake the complexities of both how power is structured and how we might think about the coalitions we create. Far too often movements revert to a position in which membership and joint political work are based on a necessarily similar history of oppression—but this is too much like identity politics. Instead, I am suggesting here that the process of movement building be rooted not in our shared history or identity but in our shared marginal relationship to dominant power that normalizes, legitimizes, and privileges.” (p. 43)

Cohen sums up my goal with this type of research. We must—if we are serious about committing ourselves to revolutionary organizing, if we believe in the potentiality of better-world-making—we must learn to work together. We must—sex workers and labor leaders, queers and people of color, differently-abled and the imprisoned—come together to build and struggle from the foundation of our “shared relationship to dominant power.”


6 thoughts on “Queering Labor Showcase #3: The Lusty Lady union/Exotic Dancers Union

  1. Pingback: Queering Labor Showcase #4: Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ) « .rebel grrrl academy: revolution in the shop room, the classroom, the streets & the hips.

  2. Thanks for including the Lusty Lady and the film Live Nude Girls Unite! as part of your showcase. I like how you connect it with Cohen and Munoz–I would enjoy reading more about the radical queer potential of the Lusty Lady organizing, particularly in terms of the coalitions it could/did foster. How do you see this being represented in the film?

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