Strippers on Strike

Rachel Rabbit White

Photos by V. Piquett

Soldiers of Pole is laying bare the tyranny of the club.

Strip clubs, like casinos and theme parks, are a labyrinthine economy, designed to disorient patrons and extract money from them at every turn: entry fees, marked-up drinks, sky-high card minimums, and ATMs fees that can reach up to forty dollars. But dancers know that the exploitative maze of a club isn’t targeted just at patrons — dancers, also, are vulnerable to a host of predatory schemes. The industry features a pay-to-work model where “stage fees” are standard. These hidden fees mean that dancers, despite their hard work, could lose money during a shift. Strippers typically work as independent contractors, meaning they can be hired and fired at will, and often are pressured into taking shifts despite knowing they’ll likely lose money.

When I worked nights at a midrange club in Times Square, the drill was this: I arrived at 7 p.m. or earlier for a spot at a dressing-room mirror and on the makeup artist’s waitlist. The list was a long line of stage names tagged in lipstick on the mirror: Tiffany, Diamond, Roxy, Amber. These services were not complimentary —I had to pay for his services, even if my set started before he got to my tag. As I rushed to straighten or curl, glue and shellac, the male managers would barge into our cramped quarters in their ill-fitting suits and yell, “If you’re not on the floor by 8 p.m., house fees are going up. Tonight, we’re going up to two hundred dollars after 8 p.m. Got that?”

When the managers threatened to raise stage fees, I would rush to turn a messy cat eye into a smoky one so that I could make the regular fee of $140, reaching the floor by 8 p.m. only to find it empty despite all the commotion from management. With no customers in sight, listlessly twirling under pulsing neon lights for hours on end, I would wait until the club picked up, and usually that meant working overtime. During these idle hours my eye was on the exit sign, hoping that by the time I headed out I would have made enough money to break even. The only way to make money in the club was by selling time in private rooms, and even then a 30 percent cut had to be given to the club. My tips also vanished into many hands before they reached mine: it was mandatory to tip the “host” who “booked” the private rooms, the DJ, the house mother — a locker-room attendant who sells overpriced garments — and even the bouncers or managers when they “hooked you up” with customers. Instead of counting on earning a fair wage, every aspect of working for the club felt designed to put me in debt that my labor paid back.

A new California court ruling could upend these predatory practices. This landmark decision, known as the Dynamex ruling, makes it harder for companies to misclassify their workers as independent contractors in order to avoid paying taxes and benefits. It’s not just dancers who are misclassified this way but also Uber and Lyft drivers, construction workers, hairstylists, programmers, sales associates, dog walkers, journalists, truckers, janitors, warehouse workers, homecare workers, and many more. Since the 1970s, a wave of industries have reclassified their employees in this manner. The app-enabled gig economy has only accelerated the trend.

“Instead of counting on earning a fair wage, every aspect of working for the club felt designed to put me in debt that my labor paid back.”

After the ruling, publications like Forbes touted the advantage of being an independent contractor. Their articles extolled the benefits of collecting untaxed wages — never mind that filing taxes as a freelancer remains an unparalleled nightmare — and “making your own hours.” As every stripper knows, however, making your own schedule is a ruse. I was attracted to stripping for its supposed freedom — I loved the promise of making my own hours. But as it turned out, flexibility didn’t actually mean freedom for me, it simply meant I had to match management’s shifting needs and expectations. Management will pressure you into taking the shifts they want covered. I was free to choose “weekend hours” as long as I picked up on the clues that I needed to work longer hours and take extra shifts during the week to keep my schedule. And while all independent contractors work at risk, strippers who work with the stigma of sex work are especially subject to exploitation. There’s no entitlement to a safe workplace or protection from sexual harassment, no protection from racist and ageist firing and hiring, or from other forms of discrimination. Strippers have no access to unemployment, no workers’ compensation for injuries, and, because of antitrust laws, no right to organize to put a stop to these conditions.

Days after the Dynamex ruling, corporate strip clubs in California, namely Déjà Vu Services Incorporated — the Taco Bell of strip clubs — quickly put new rules in place. Déjà Vu clubs forced dancers to make a minimum in dance sales for each shift lest they be docked or fired. The ruling reverberated across the industry: a national wave of mass firings occurred, and clubs began taking a larger percentage of tips. And while dancers were now purportedly given an hourly minimum wage, in some cases that wage was taken directly out of what they had made at the end of the night, just as before. But now, for the first time, taxes were pulled from their nightly earnings. Other clubs stipulated that every worker’s first five dances would go directly to the house. And many venues continued charging house fees with additional required tip-outs. In other words, the laws put in place to protect workers from managerial manipulation simply opened up new avenues of exploitation. When dancers complained about these changes, they were told by the clubs that it was all the fault of the new law, which they should fight to repeal.

It was in this environment of intimidation that the activist group Soldiers of Pole formed. Domino Rey, Antonia Crane, and Naomi Amadeo, three strippers at Crazy Girls in Hollywood, defied the club’s insistence that Dynamex was their only problem and began organizing for their rights out of the locker room. They created flamingo-pink flyers to be shared on social media with other sex workers. “Don’t be fooled by the YSL / We’re punk rock,”read one flyer. Another showed a black dancer with a blonde ponytail hugging hefty stacks of singles with a message to the managers: “Remember who makes the money.” Soldiers of Pole made it clear from the beginning that they were against predatory labor practices, pro-union, and pro–sex work.

Less than a month after their organizing began, Soldiers of Pole called its first strike against Crazy Girls. Domino Rey told me it was a chilly night for Los Angeles in February, but it was impossible to fret about the weather when the energy was so spirited. “Heels On / Right, Left / House Fees are Wage Theft,” they chanted. Crazy Girls management came outside and tried to push the protestors off the sidewalk, so traffic could still flow towards the entrance. The managers harassed the picket line, taking photos and videos on their phones. Unfazed, the protestors soldiered on through the night, chanting, “If you don’t stop stealing tips, we’re not gonna show our tits!”

A week after the success of Soldiers of Pole’s first protest, which made local and national news, a counterprotest popped up in San Diego. According to Rey, clubs had begun to spread misinformation in order to channel resistance away from Soldiers of Pole and toward the Dynamex ruling. “Clubs were telling dancers that being an employee and not an independent contractor means having no control over your schedule and giving up all your money, but there are no provisions in the law stipulating lack of control or wage theft,” Rey told me. As a result of the manager’s campaign, the protest urged dancers to protest Dynamex. A flyer, circulated online, read: “Don’t let the state of California tell you how to monetize YOUR body.” It was signed by the California Dancers United Coalition, a likely management-created organization. None of the strippers with Soldiers of Pole had heard of this coalition, even though it claimed to be a grassroots group that grew from three members in 2015 to 2,800 signees nationwide. The group did not show up on the list of registered 501(c)(6) trade organizations. In an interview with Forbes, a representative from the group claimed they were still in the process of formally organizing, odd for a group supposedly comprising 2,800 members.

Rey and Amadeo, representing Soldiers of Pole, went to San Diego to check out these protests. When they arrived, they found signs similar to the ones they had carried a week prior, and even heard chants that repeated their slogans almost word for word. “We were asking them, ‘What are your concerns? What do you guys wanna know about this?’ And they were like, ‘Well, our manager told us we needed to show up and fight for our rights.’” These dancers were mostly from the Déjà Vu clubs, notorious for bad labor practices. “They’ve been putting a letter inside employee packets, to be signed by dancers and sent to the governor’s office, saying they don’t want this bill to pass and want to remain independent contractors,” said Rey. “The dancers aren’t even being told what the letter is or what they’re signing. They’re just being used as leverage to repeal these [Dynamex] protections.”

Instead of acquiescing to management’s plea to fight Dynamex, Soldiers of Pole is organizing workplaces and figuring out the best way to form a dancer’s union. They know what protections dancers need and the issues they face, with sexual harassment, discriminatory hiring, protection for immigrant dancers, scheduling, and wage theft via stolen tips and imposed fees ranking very high.

This work to build solidarity has been met with mixed results by other strippers. Strip-club locker rooms are hardly havens of friendly female intimacy, in part because the independent contractor model has forced dancers to compete for every dollar, creating an icy work environment. The first piece of advice I received as a stripper came from a female manager, who urged: “Don’t try to make friends and don’t pay attention to the girls. They aren’t your friends. Come here and make money.” But the work Soldiers of Pole is doing could change that every-woman-for-herself culture. In a diner at 2:30 a.m. in downtown Los Angeles, after Tuesday night work hours, Soldiers of Pole hosted “Stripper Talks.” Here, dancers who were connecting via the online group could meet face to face, discuss differences or disagreements, and ask questions. “It was a mix of people who were confused or had questions and people who just were excited to support us. It was amazing, people were just handing us cash saying they wanted to learn more, but also to help out.” The big question among the dancers was: who’s hiring now? Los Angeles clubs continued to carry out mass firings in the wake of the Dynamex ruling, making dancers nervous about interacting with Soldiers of Pole for fear of facing retaliation. Some say managers routinely monitor their social media accounts.

As they work to unionize, Soldiers of Pole have more protests planned. They are heartened by the public support they have received from representatives of the #MeToo movement, Los Angeles DSA, SWOP LA, and anarchist group La Rosa Negra. Given the hostility with which many sex workers have been treated by mainstream feminism, this solidarity surprised Rey. As Rey points out, organizing works both in and out of the workplace. What Soldiers of Pole are doing, she says, “goes in the face of every capitalist myth of rugged individualism, hustle, grit, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps to do it on your own. The reality is we need community and we have to start getting to know each other and care about each other.” This can be a hard message to get across in stripping, where every moment is dedicated to hustling and the single-minded pursuit of profit. But Soldiers of Pole has found that their struggle resonates with other workers affected by the Dynamex ruling. Rey continues: “But besides that, this is important enough to say ‘enough is enough.’ We know that if we do this together things can change.”