strippers stiking
Photography by Helen Arase

Los Angeles Strippers Protest for Fair Wages

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Workers organizing and striking for decent working conditions is nothing new in Los Angeles; a teacher and sex worker shares how and why to join forces in the battle for strippers’ rights.

Hard rain pounds outside my apartment window. I hear yelling. I live in Highland Park near two schools where most mornings teenagers in P.E. clothes clown around on the tennis courts as they practice dance routines. School buses stop half a block from my front door. If I make it outside early enough, I pass parents holding their kids’ hands and pulling them quickly along, their brightly-colored backpacks bouncing behind them.

Today and several days prior, it’s been the adults making a commotion. They’re protesting. According to them, class sizes in the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) are unmanageable, and they need more teachers for the 600,000 students in the district. As they yell in the rain, I remember the brand-new red umbrellas in my garage left over from the International Whore Day march. They were provided by the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), a direct service non-profit organization aimed at serving the sex worker community.

As both a creative writing instructor at UCLA Extension and a sex worker, I am part of both workforces currently under duress, strained by unsavory working conditions and negotiating for better. I snatch the umbrellas and walk outside where I hand them to the teachers.

“I’m a teacher too,” I say. “Did you know that strippers are unionizing locally? Take this umbrella in solidarity.”

The writer Antonia Crane protesting for labor rights for LA strippers.
The writer Antonia Crane at a recent strike outside of Crazy Girls. Photo by Helen Arase.

Los Angeles has a rich history of workers standing together to fight unfair labor conditions. Over the past century, our city’s Latinx garment workers, film production workers, dock workers, and more recently film and TV writers, have gone on strike and subsequently made employment gains.

The tricky step now is forming alliances between workers in unexpected places. Teaching, like stripping, is about the live performance, inspiration and connection made on the spot. They have more in common than one may think.

On April 30, 2018, California delivery drivers filed a complaint against Dynamex Operations West, Inc., a nationwide package and document delivery company. The drivers complained that Dynamex had misclassified them as independent contractors when they were, in fact, employees. The state Supreme Court agreed and ruled in their favor.

Over the past century, our city’s Latinx garment workers, film production workers, dock workers, and more recently film and TV writers, have gone on strike and subsequently made employment gains.

The ruling states independent contractors are now employees entitled to workplace rights in a way we have never before laid claim to: housekeepers, hairdressers, Uber drivers, strippers and other workers can demand those rights.

Say “union,” and we say, “Soldiers of Pole.” As strippers on strike we are gathering steam in Los Angeles. Our glittering femme workforce is unmuzzled from “Independent Contractor” status, which means we are free to associate, commiserate and gather, earn minimum wage and work reasonable hours and  receive health insurance and workers comp. Better yet, we can form a union where we have the power to negotiate for better.

Organizers protest for stripper's labor rights.
Protesters in Hollywood support L.A. strippers’ labor movement. Photos by Helen Arase.

Soldiers of Pole, the group of Los Angeles strippers I am a co-founder of, intends to help strippers file claims with the California Labor Commissioner’s office for wage theft, retaliation and a variety of other labor law violations. We are seeking union support and plan to address hostile workplaces through collective bargaining and the grievance procedure.

As strippers, we want to be free to work when we need money to support our lives. As much as our customers enjoy the idea that sex workers enjoy motorboating for America, the fact is, we’re there for the money.

After the Dynamex ruling changed our classification, the clubs got busy retaliating. They forced many of us to sign various arbitration agreements and illegal contracts including release of claim forms in an attempt to remove the rights we just obtained.

This is how we know we are on the right track. Management is afraid we know our rights as workers. They are also extracting our tips in order to make us pay for our own minimum wage by ordering customers to hand them the money directly. This is wage theft. This is financial violence.

A woman strikes for strippers rights
A weary protester holds up a sign. Photo by Helen Arase.

In the early ’90s, I danced nude at several strip clubs in San Francisco that were owned by men about town with names like Bob, Tony and the infamous Mitchell Brothers. A few years later, one big corporation bought most of the strip clubs and began charging us high fees to work. They also cut our shifts shorter in order to extract more of our tips for the hours worked.

The fees were arbitrary and changed each night, and landed somewhere between $80-$180 for four-hour shifts. We handed over the money because we were used to handing it over. As if it were the most natural thing in the world to pay them to allow us to work. My coworkers offered hand jobs and other “extras” inside the club to make a profit and pay our totally illegal “house fees” and “mandatory tip outs.”

If at the heart of feminism is having total agency over our bodies, then why aren’t more feminists fighting alongside sex workers to maintain this stance? A sex worker’s body is not a product to sell, make a commission off of or even consume.

As strippers, we want to be free to work when we need money to support our lives. As much as our customers enjoy the idea that sex workers enjoy motorboating for America, the fact is, we’re there for the money.

Lap dancing, our time and attention are entertainment — a live show that can never be repeated or packaged. Yet, the corporate sex industry is the only place where men assume ownership and entitlement to our money. They have gotten away with it for decades.

It is not the woman who works in the sex industry or the lap dancing itself that is the problem. It’s how money and power work within a structure that ensures that stigma towards women’s work and women’s bodies dampens our power to organize and unify.

I am still stripping and doing sex work after 26 years for one reason: To remind strippers not to hand over their money just because they are told to. Without them, there are no strip clubs. Without sex workers, there is no sex industry.

I’m here to tell them to reject the narrative that they have to pay to work. The opposite is true. They are providing a service. Our live shows are a source of power and beauty. Let’s stop giving that away. Stand together and destroy the system that has failed us.

Join our fight and support your local strippers by visiting soldiersofpole.com.

Los Angeleno