This wasn't your garden-variety health department or kitchen union dispute. This was the latest episode in an ongoing turf war of San Francisco's stripper community. These women were dancers from the Mitchell brothers' O'Farrell Theater, who had formed a group called the Independent Dancers Association (IDA); they had formed the organization to retain their independent-contractor status.
The IDA was present to formally protest that evening's performance sponsored by its archrival, a larger stripper activist group called the Exotic Dancers Alliance (EDA). The dispute: The IDA thought its members could make more money by remaining independent, while the EDA wanted the security of a union.
Two years earlier, dancers from the Mitchells had thrown a benefit show, Save Our Strippers, at the Great American Music Hall. Members of the Women's Action Coalition (WAC) had mobilized out front to protest. The Mitchell brothers dancers mistakenly thought the EDAbehind the action. Now that the EDA was throwing a benefit of its own, it was payback time -- a tense affair that nearly ended with a hit-and-run.
This West Side Story-style knife fight traces its roots to 1988, when the O'Farrell Theater, arguably the swankiest strip club in the country, reclassified its dancers from employee to independent-contractor status. Dancers no longer were paid a wage plus tips; instead, they had to pay a per-shift stage fee to perform at the theater, and only received what they could get from the tips themselves. It didn't matter that much; some girls were still clearing over a grand a night, but ....
But, notwithstanding some dancers making far more than a living wage, two lawsuits were soon to shift the entire landscape.
In 1992, Market Street Cinema dancers Dawn Passar and Johanna Breyer organized the Exotic Dancers Alliance, hoping to force management to make improvements to the club. The two were fired and blacklisted from all S.F. clubs. A year later, dancers Jennifer Bryce and Ellen Vickery, along with 212 other dancers, filed a class-action suit against the Mitchell brothers, demanding a whopping $5 million in back wages, fees, and damages, claiming they were treated as employees without the right of employment. Mitchells dancers filed to intervene in Bryce and Vickery's suit.
The rest of the country watched with a keen eye. After all, S.F. had been the birthplace of topless dancing, and continued to nurture a long history of progressive labor practices. Plus, five million bucks is a lot of lap dances. (Of course, the woman most responsible for putting the town on the mammary map back in the '60s, Carol Doda, has never seen much money, but that's another story.)
The confusion -- and polarization -- began building. An ensuing benefit, sponsored by dancers who would eventually form the IDA, was picketed by WAC. Members of the EDA performed at the Hooker's Balls, working in conjunction with COYOTE and other sex-worker groups. Members of the IDA performed at the Exotic Erotic Balls. And members of both groups continued dancing at the Mitchells' theater, the divisive tension in the dressing room fast approaching critical mass. One dancer would tell California Lawyer magazine's Nina Martin, "This is the kind of work that instinctively pits women against women."
The debates continued. Was unionization the best for all clubs? Certainly it made sense for some women who could legitimately use union protection. But would the cash-rich clubs agree to take less revenue? And is union status truly necessary in an industry where careers of dancers, much like athletes, are typically over by age 30? Or was this going to end up another unresolved S.F. dilemma -- such as the spat over legalization of prostitution, in which a schizophrenic city wants to pursue its agenda of gender rights, but not at the expense of its frisky reputation as the freewheeling Barbary Coast?
In August of 1996, a precedent was set. A majority of the dancers at the female-owned-and-operated Lusty Lady strip club in North Beach signed with the Service Employees International Union Local 790. The story gained national attention, and the turf war started up again. The following month the green bus pulled up in front of the Trocadero.
"We were yelling chants, and we were completely obnoxious," says "Marisa," star of the recent Xxxtreme stage show at the Mitchells'. "We were laughing, and having fun. We were just trying to get people to listen."
"It was really ridiculous,"says EDAspokeswoman Johanna Breyer. "They were shouting 'Go home Local 2/ If we wanted a pimp it wouldn't be you.' " (Breyer adds that Local 2 is actually the city's hotel and restaurant union.)
As Marisa walked across the street, a black Honda Civic suddenly zipped past her, the female driver yelling out, "Bitch!" What seemed mere name-calling, however, turned truly ugly when the car circled the block, roared around the corner again, and abruptly swerved across two lanes, its front bumper aiming straight at Marisa, who jumped back just in time. Picket-wielding strippers shouted epithets at the car.
"It's really pathetic," says Marisa of the incident, but adds the dispute itself is far from silly. "It's major -- it's major, major, major. You have people fighting for their livelihoods, really, for what they believe in."
"It's really disheartening to see one class of workers pitted against the other,"says Breyer, "when we should al be concerned about working conditions and job security."
After an NPR segment aired recently on the union dispute, another chapter of this feud seemed to close last week. At the same time the Lusty Lady management locked out their dancers over Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, a judge once again denied the IDA dancers' request to intervene in the Mitchell case. The IDA girls have vowed to continue their efforts. Meanwhile, the EDA members wait for the day when all strippers will be unionized, and classified as legitimate employees.
The sad truth of the matter, though, is that in strip joints all over town, businessmen with wallets to burn obliviously grind away in the dark. These guys could care less whether their lap dancer is a union member, an independent contractor, or an extraterrestrial.
Address all correspondence to: Slap Shots, c/o SF Weekly, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8152; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jack Boulware