have seen stage poles break and fall from the ceiling, mid-song. I’ve seen a dancer collapse then convulse violently — her black, scuffed stilettos trembling beneath the curtain backstage — before she was spirited away on a stretcher.
I’ve danced topless while sprinklers flooded the dressing room and coworkers sprinted through smoke in rhinestone bikinis as our club caught on fire. I’ve stripped through electricity outages, club shootings, fistfights, and ever-overflowing toilets. I’ve been choked by a government official, robbed by a customer I later watched snatch my purse on security camera footage — all while managers did nothing.
And recently, one stripper told me her co-worker was sexually assaulted in a storage closet during a night shift, then, afterward, she was fired. “It happens to everybody,” she said. Working in these kinds of conditions where sexual assault is normalized is atrocious. Strippers, made vulnerable by our dress code and feminized gender performance, confront more workplace violence than many other physically taxing gigs and therefore, we need more workplace protections.
In California strip clubs from San Francisco to Cathedral City, I’ve had to pay to work.
Management has always found new ways to steal up to 70% of stripper’s earnings by changing the titles of the illegal fees, calling them a “tip out,” a “stage fee” and a “bonus.” Dressing up wage theft to look like freedom is a sleight-of-hand specialty of capitalism.
Words like “Independent Contractor” and “Freelance” and “Right to Work” contain the promise of flexibility and whimsy when they actually mean job precariousness, zero protections and no benefits whatsoever.
Like thousands of other Californians, I’m a permalancer: a worker who stacks side hustles to make ends meet. I work as a stripper, writer, and writing instructor. Although I’ve worked steadily at all three gigs for several years, the job I’ve kept the longest is stripping. In an environment that is highly sexualized and unregulated, the shop floor of strip clubs is ripe for exploitation, extortion, and assault. And in twenty-six years as a working stripper coast to coast, our working conditions have only become worse. In fact, I’ve found that the less regulated my workplace has been, the more I’ve been exploited.
Now California is challenging that. In April of 2018, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of drivers in the Dynamex case, which redefined the parameters of independent contractors and employees. Only workers who passed this ABC test could be classified as independent contractors:
“(a) that the worker is free from the control and direction of the hirer in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact; and (b) that the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and © that the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.”
Translators, freelance writers, and many other folks blame AB5 and its author, councilwoman Lorena Gonzalez, for loss of work. Its intent was to push employers to pay federal and state taxes and allow workers their basic rights, but some companies are pushing the burden back onto the worker by firing them or shuttering their business. Understandably, this causes outrage and distress to workers while casting a shadow on the legislation instead of illuminating the potentially powerful position they’re now in possession of.
If wielded correctly.
AB5 allows freelancers, giggers, strippers, and permalancers increased power to organize, negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, benefits, a sexual harassment policy, and job security.
Forcing strip clubs to correctly classify workers as employees guarantees strippers the same rights and entitlements guaranteed to all employees in the state of California. Meaning, among other things, strippers in California are better positioned to unionize now.
At first, strip clubs responded to AB5 and Dynamex by charging workers another illegal fine. With Orwellian levels of irony, they called it the “Cost of Employment.”
By January of 2019, the strip club where I worked forced dancers to sign a Release of Claims contacts or petty-cash bribe settlement contract, along with an extensive arbitration agreement topped with a hefty NDA. The deal was sign — or be fired. The new “cost of employment” fee became a confusing shell game. This is how it looks: hand over all of the cash for the first ten dances (or about $100-$150) and receive a promise to receive a paycheck. If or when paychecks ever materialize, they are zero-sum paychecks.
The newest tactic in local strip clubs is to force dancers to sign a contract claiming that they are “customers” instead of workers, skirting the whole “employee” debacle altogether. One club fired dozens of strippers in a group text message that stated the club was “renovating.” They later told dancers they could re-audition, but the club was leased under new management who forced them to sign the “customer” contract before work.
Employers’ effort to escape their obligations by misclassifying their workers is not a new issue. Company gains are massive when misclassifying workers because they avoid paying social security, payroll taxes, Medicare, unemployment, workers comp, overtime, minimum wage, sick pay and paid parental leave.
For instance, when AB5 passed, companies accustomed to denying workers basic rights and protections made being an employee sound like a bad deal. And it was, but not because of the bill. Some companies implemented the bill by firing freelancers without warning. They told them to become their own corporation in order to meet the new tax requirements. They hired journalists from other states. They shuttered completely and blamed AB5.
Freelance writers and translators took to social media to complain about having to become employees in California arguing that their “exceptionalism” as creative content creators should exempt them from AB5.
And they have a point.
Within the framework of AB5, freelance writers are being capped at 35-pieces of journalism per outlet (originally, the aim was 50 pieces) and this is problematic for, say, sportswriters, who will sometimes churn out a dozen pieces a day covering an event. I would argue if a writer is contracted for 35 articles per year, they should be hired as an employee — why not?
What freelance writers against AB5 fail to acknowledge is the 57 million at-will employees in the U.S. who have been toiling precariously in the workplace for decades without security, benefits, or a sexual harassment policy.
I’ve noticed many workers who bemoan AB5 come from a certain class: they author books, teach fancy workshops, and have spouses who share expenses and childcare. They are residency hoppers who often hold MFA’s and PHD’s. They occasionally write essays and articles to supplement their income. I know this because I am one of them. They believe we don’t need AB5. But they’re wrong.
AB5 paves the way to demand more from our employers, rather than treat work like a favor granted by the work gods— a favor they believe has been snatched away by the state of California. Angry freelancers have misplaced their blame. Instead of being mad at their boss who misclassified them, they cast blame on a law that helps them. They are ranting about a carve out or a repeal, when they need to join other organizing workers and demand better for all of us.
Executives at places like Uber and Lyft — where hundreds of thousands of humans work — want folks to believe the narrative that AB5 is terrible and that gig work is the outcome of innovation, meaning that we need new categories of workers to keep up with this new technology. But as State Senator Maria Elena Durazo put it so well:
“Let’s be clear: there is nothing innovative about underpaying someone for their labor.”
What many newly classified employees don’t realize is they are now one step closer to the right to bargain collectively for higher wages, healthcare, retirement, workers comp and to demand improvement of their overall working conditions. AB5 helps these workers by requiring employers to meet their basic obligations. Right now, giggers and their advocates are pausing at a crossroads, while strippers are quietly forming a labor union in California.
Strippers and Uber and Lyft drivers have much in common. For instance, the narrative of exploitation. Club owners charge employees’ fees, arguing that they have provided dancers a VIP room and stage to connect to their customers and earn tips. Uber and Lyft execs want to argue they provide a digital platform connecting drivers to riders (and thus do not fit into the traditional notion of an employer). Both seek to classify workers as independent contractors in order to avoid paying minimum wage, liability insurance or benefits.
In both cases, neither employer offers the most basic element of a humane working life: a safe and sane workplace free of assault, discrimination and wage theft.
Although it is crucial that drivers and writers be able to unionize and negotiate for better working conditions, the current coverage of AB5 casts organizing strippers aside.
Labor activists can see the potential success in organizing drivers since Uber and Lyft have become daily fixtures in our busy lives and may transform their industry with these newly won rights. There are thousands of drivers who own the means of production — their own cars.
But the labor movement has failed to see the power in the hundreds of thousands of strippers whose means of production are our bodies and our time.
When organized, stripper power and leverage in the workplace will be unlimited. All strippers have to do is walk out. Without strippers, there are no strip clubs. The only things dancers need to succeed are the same resources, support, and energy that organized labor has provided other unionizing sectors of the economy for decades.
The biggest obstacle preventing strippers from forming our own union is the exclusion of our collective voices from the current labor conversation. Being left out of this dialogue keeps us from winning potential allies, unions, resources, and advocates — in spite of our widespread, ongoing unionization efforts and wildcat strikes.
Let’s not continue to frame our movements in ways that have historically echoed exclusionary, white, male-dominated agendas — along with their implicit biases and abuses. Our collective power as a feminized workforce is not seated in our exceptionalism, but in our commonality.
Keep your eyes on the pole and dance to the pulse of our labor movement.