Melissa Gira Grant writes about labour struggles in the club

Organized Labor’s Newest Heroes: Strippers

 

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 settlementin Federal court, the result of a class action suit to restore back wages and contest their status as independent contractors of the clubs.

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.

As its currently organized, stripping is service work—and not unlike most service work in the United States, it’s a field dominated by women who have to fight to be treated fairly. Even in a strip club where she was getting a pay check, Mariko Passion, a former dancer and current escort and artist, said, “I was still being charged $80 every day to work there, not including my tip-out,” additional fees to be paid to DJ’s and other club service staff. Dancers’ tips can vary widely, depending on factors as unpredictable as customer whims and volume, to banal concerns like rain and football. On a shift where you pull in eight $20 dances (that’s $160 before tip-out, for your back of the cocktail napkin math), an $80 “stage fee” per shift means you just gave half your earnings to your bosses. You might feel differently if you get twenty dances or a big tipper, but the stakes are the same every shift, and they’re rigged to maximize club profits. “But restaurants can try to do exactly the same thing with your tips,” says Passion, who brought her own individual suit over illegal tip sharing and won against three California clubs. “It’s not just a strip club thing. It’s a capitalist thing.”

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