Nude dancers at the Lusty Lady Theatre, San Francisco’s premier peep show, are poised to write labor history as the first of their craft to unionize.
A majority of the 60 dancers at the North Beach club, a hot spot on the city’s sex industry scene since 1982, have signed up with the Service Employees International Union, Local 790.
They’ll vote on union representation Aug. 29 and 30 in a National Labor Relations Board election.
“This is going to be precedent-setting in the industry,” said Johanna Breyer of San Francisco, a co-founder of the Exotic Dancers Alliance, an advocacy organization affiliated with Local 790.
Seeds of unionization were planted when some dancers at the club realized they were being videotaped through one-way mirrors.
“They were making these films against our will and without our knowledge,” said “Polly,” a leader in the dancers’ organizing campaign who did not want to be identified by her real name. “They were involving us in marketable pornography without pay.”
Faced with the prospect of a unionized work force, management at the 25-cents-a-peep club did away with the one-way mirrors. But the dancers had by then put together an expanded list of demands: job security, guaranteed hours, elimination of favoritism, sick leave, health insurance.
June Cade, general manager of the Lusty Lady, said: “We don’t feel that a union would be a good thing here. 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.”
Four members of the prospective union’s steering committee - interviewed on condition that only their stage names be used - acknowledged that the Lusty Lady was in many ways a top-of-the-line employer in the industry.
It has a “nice girl” image, said “Jane,” who said many of the dancers, including herself, had attended college.
For one thing, male customers can’t touch the dancers, who perform - three to five at a time - in a trapezoidal-shaped room surrounded by 13 windows. Customers who drop a quarter in the slot get about 25 seconds to watch a nude woman gyrating at crotch level a few feet away.
Pay ranges from $11 an hour for beginning dancers to $24, the hours are flexible, and management is a cut above the industry standard. Dancers are employees, not independent contractors, as in most sex enterprises, and they don’t have to pony up “stage fees” to club operators. A dancer who performs three four- to six-hour shifts a week can make about $230 a week.
The Lusty Lady is such a popular tourist attraction that advertisements on the premises are printed in five languages, and the dancers swear that it’s a magnet for Financial District workers.
“It’s not so much an entertainment thing as it is like fast food,” Jane said. “We perform a real service. If we shut down, you’re going to see a lot of tension going on.”