Twenty Years of Giving Sex Workers A Voice

A Guest Post by Johanna Breyer & Dawn Passar, Co-Founders of the Exotic Dancers Alliance and St. James Infirmary:

On May 15, 1993, over 30 dancers from Market Street Cinema in San Francisco attended a meeting to discuss working conditions at the strip club. That meeting initiated a movement that would eventually lead to the unionization of one club, class action lawsuits against other clubs, the birth of an advocacy organization promoting the labor rights of exotic dancers, and peer-based community healthcare for all sex workers. We’re proud to say that we organized the first meeting of Exotic Dancers Alliance twenty years ago, but we still have a long journey ahead of us in obtaining fair treatment for all sex workers.

Market Street Cinema was definitely not considered a “gentleman’s club” by anyone’s standards. The exterior of the building appeared as though it hadn’t been updated since the 1950’s, and the interior looked and smelled like it was permanently stained with bodily fluids and cigarette smoke. Fights would occasionally break out during shifts, either between dancers, between customers and dancers, or between managers and dancers.

The dancers who were working at Market Street Cinema were anywhere from 18 to 50 years old, single mothers, married, San Francisco natives, immigrants, students, artists, recreational or chronic substance users, or maybe just trying out a new scene for a while. Dancers worked as “independent contractors” and were responsible for providing their stage performance and collected tips from customers on and off stage. However, the actual job only required 1-2 stage performances per day; the remainder of your time was spent providing lapdances for customers.JB DP pic_2_resized

In 1992, management had decided to implement a “stage fee” of $10. They justified the fee as a necessary revenue source for making improvements within the club, though nothing really changed. Shortly thereafter, when the stage fee increased from $10 to $15, dancers started to speak out about their frustrations with the new policy and the unpredictable climate in the club. Some dancers were suspended or fired on a whim, and many feared losing their jobs if they complained. Ironically, the customers now paid less to get into the club than the dancers did to work there.

JB-DP-pic_2_resizedAfter hearing many of our co-workers’ complaints for several months, we decided to organize a meeting for the dancers to address issues with management. We drafted a proposal on behalf of the dancers in attendance at the meeting and sent it to management, certified mail. The proposal included a request for a reduction in the stage fee from $15 to $10, and improvements throughout the club in terms of overall cleanliness. Management did not respond.

We organized a second meeting, but this time invited members of C.O.Y.O.T.E (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and S.E.I.U. (Service Employees International Union). C.O.Y.O.T.E. was founded by Margo St. James in the early 1970s and was the first sex workers rights organization in the United States.

Many dancers felt discouraged, although not completely shocked by the fact that management had completely ignored our requests. We asked our guests from C.O.Y.O.T.E. and S.E.I.U. for guidance, and they said that we could always unionize if we wanted to. There was only one problem: with the exception of one strip club in San Francisco (Lusty Lady), all exotic dancers were considered “independent contractors” by management — not employees. In order to obtain the support and representation from a recognized union, such as S.E.I.U., the dancers at Market Street Cinema needed to be employees.

So we filed wage and hour claims with the State Labor Commission against Market Street Cinema regarding employment status, back wages, and return of stage fees and management appropriated tips. We also submitted complaints to the State Department of Fair Employment & Housing and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for sexual harassment and discrimination. The following spring, the Labor Commission’s ruling was announced. Management would have to pay the dancers as employees, return the money that they had illegally taken from us, and we would therefore have the right to obtain union representation. Unfortunately, our victory was short-lived— Market Street Cinema appealed the Labor Commission’s ruling and increased the stage fee to $25 per shift. But other dancers soon joined our efforts — a class action lawsuit was filed by dancers against Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater regarding employment status. A movement had begun.

In 1996, we received calls from dancers at the Lusty Lady Theater, who discovered they were being filmed illegally by customers. Though the dancers feared retaliation from management, they attended a C.O.Y.O.T.E. meeting to connect with sex worker advocates.

We met with S.E.I.U. and Lusty Lady workers in May and a few weeks later they announced their official organizing status and S.E.I.U. representation to management. In April 1997, in a historic first for San Francisco, the Lusty Lady unionized and the Exotic Dancers Union, S.E.I.U., Local 790 was formed.

We heard from dancers across the nation who wanted to file wage and hour claims and/or participate in collective organizing efforts to improve their working conditions. The legal battles were arduous, but there were victories. A tentative settlement was finally reached in the class action lawsuit against Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater in the amount of $2.85 million, and later over 60 dancers from Market Street Cinema and other clubs were awarded over $600,000 in back wages and “stage fees.”

In June of 1999, we joined C.O.Y.O.T.E. and the San Francisco Department of Public Health in creating the St. James Infirmary—the first Occupational Health & Safety Clinic for Sex Workers in San Francisco. This established a community space for all sex workers, where safety and healthcare was regarded with the upmost importance, which, in and of itself, is a radical political concept.

Unfortunately, we still have a great deal of work ahead of us. Dancers continue to battle management over stage fees (some of which have increased to hundreds of dollars per shift). And in an increasingly wealthy city with growing conservatism, sex work has become even more stigmatized. City regulations across the nation — including one that allows police to use condoms as evidence against sex workers in solicitation cases — threaten to make sex work even less safe. Trafficking laws are written so broadly as to further criminalize workers they were supposedly enacted to protect. The underlying theme? Those writing the laws refuse to listen to the voices of those of us most affected.

This is why, twenty years later, organizations like St. James Infirmary are so vital — and why sex workers need to be included in policy-making discussions that impact our livelihood. Twenty years ago, we fought for justifiable improvements in our working conditions; today, we continue to demand respect from our government and equal protections for all sex workers.

//   Johanna Breyer and Dawn Passar are the Co-Founders of Exotic Dancers Alliance and the St. James Infirmary. They continue to fight for sex workers rights in the Bay Area and beyond.

Photo Credit: Dawn Passar