Getting under the bosses' skin Labor: While San Francisco strippers fight to form a union, they also may be exposing themselves to retaliation by their bosses.

August 26, 1996|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SAN FRANCISCO -- The peep booths at the Lusty Lady Theatre are barely bigger than telephone booths, but the men who hurry in and out -- and there are lots of them at dusk on a Friday evening -- don't seem to mind.

They've come for the view. Put in a quarter, or a dollar or a twenty, and a tinted screen rises to reveal a clear window, behind which four young women dance wearing nothing but high-heels.

The vacant sign lights up on booth No. 4, and a blond-haired, fresh-faced dancer who calls herself Polly enters the booth. She's not working tonight. Instead she's giving a tour of the Lusty Lady to a visitor.

A dollar bill is inserted, the opaque screen rises and a skinny dancer named Velvet gyrates over to say hello. Through the glass window, Polly mouths the word "union" several times until recognition sweeps across Velvet's thin face. She jabs two thumbs into the air -- the universal "all right!" sign. She's pumped, she's dancing in the nude, and if all goes well this week, she'll be part of the only unionized strip club in the nation.

About 80 percent of the 63 dancers at the Lusty Lady have signed petitions for the Service Employees International Union, Local 790. They'll vote on union representation Thursday and Friday in a National Labor Relations Board election that could make labor history.

"This is going to be precedent-setting in the industry," says Johanna Breyer, a co-founder of the Exotic Dancers Alliance, an advocacy organization affiliated with Local 790.

But Polly, a graduate student in English literature who dances part-time, is openly nervous about the outcome.

"Management has hired a big, expensive law firm to fight us," she says. "That's scary for 25-year-old women who can't have anyone know what kind of work they do."

Indeed, nude dancing is not usually a job to tell the family about. And exposure is the key issue in the drive to unionize. As Polly tells it, while she sips a soda before work in a restaurant near the club, last January she looked out from the dance floor and saw a tiny red light -- the sign of a video camera at work. A peep-booth customer was filming as Polly danced, and it wasn't the first time.

Even worse, images of the dancers were showing up on the Internet, according to Velvet.

"My parents are Catholics on the East Coast," says Polly, 27. "They would be crushed."

The dancers, who are paid between $11 and $24 an hour, say they raised their concerns with the Lusty Lady manager, June Cade. "She shot down every one of our ideas," Polly says. "She said, 'If you really feel that strongly about not being photographed, this is the wrong job for you.' "

Frustrated, the dancers began to talk about forming a union.

"We were scared," recalls Polly, who is one of 14 members of the union organizing committee. "But we thought, she can't fire all of us." Notes were slipped into lockers and furtive phone calls made. Dancers who had felt they had no choice but to put up with a less-than-stellar work environment began to change their minds.

'A good place to work'

Cade did not return phone calls. But earlier this month she told the San Francisco Examiner the strip club is opposed to a union.

"We don't feel that a union would be a good thing here," she said. "We have a very flexible arrangement, and unions aren't famous for their flexibility. This is a good place to work. I don't think they [the dancers] realize that if there's a collective bargaining agreement, everything is on the table."

Club management has retained the services of Littler Mendelson Fastiff Tichy & Mathiason, a large San Francisco law firm that specializes in labor law. Alan Levins, an attorney with the firm, points out that the club has a "no photography allowed" rule, but simply cannot guarantee that no photographs will be taken.

Once word spread that a union election was going to be held, management quickly removed the one-way windows in three peep-booths, where the most blatant filming had taken place. The one-way mirror booths are popular with men who don't want to be recognized and voyeurs. Polly says management believes the one-way booths bring in more revenue, which is why their removal is called an experiment.

Other issues remain, including the desire to have what Polly calls "a modest health care plan," sick leave, a guarantee that dancers will be scheduled for a minimum number of shifts per week and the elimination of favoritism in promotion. Pay isn't really an issue.

Polly says it was the prospect of earning fairly decent wages at a part-time job that drew her into exotic dancing. Before she started dancing at the Lusty Lady, she worked in book publishing, but found it difficult to juggle a full-time office job with graduate school.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.