Saturday, October 18, 2014

Labor Film Series 'Live Nude Girls Unite'

The introduction to the film 'Live Nude Girls Unite':
Jon Garlock and Bess Watts before the introduction of the film.
Released in 2000, this  film documents the effort in 1996-97 to unionize the 75 dancers and 25 support staff at The Lusty Lady, a 24 hour live and video peep arcade in San Francisco’s North Beach district.  It was written and directed by Julia Query and Vicki Funari, both dancers at the establishment and has won multiple awards at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

This film will challenge your assumptions about sex workers and leave you pondering the nature of exploitation and empowerment.  A new study of the Canadian sex industry sheds light on these workers, whose lives shaped by are public attitude, stigma, discrimination, fear, isolation, punitive work laws and work environment. Most of them — native born, Caucasian, in their thirties or forties —  have some education or training beyond high school, do not feel exploited, and say that most clients are not oppressors.

Among the powerful women in Live Nude Girls Unite are writers, graduate students and teachers and they apologize for nothing.  They bring authenticity to the phrase “there is dignity in all work.” The film’s narrator is Julia Query, a dancer and stand-up lesbian comedian who takes the audience on a illuminating journey beginning with her decision to leave graduate school and start stripping. This presents a huge problem when her own Jewish mother is a widely respected physician who works with prostitutes. 

An ambitious worker, Julia put in long hours at the Lusty Lady on stage and in the peep booth along with fellow exotic dancers Velvet, Amnesia, and Lolita.  A build up of grievances led to the unionizing effort in 1997: arbitrary wage policies, scheduling of dancers based on race and breast size, no sick leave, unfair demotions, and safety and privacy concerns. African American dancers filed a discrimination complaint. But the precipitating event was the installation of one-way mirrors in a number of booths, allowing customers to make unauthorized recordings destined for amateur  porn sites.  Dancers objected, especially those trying to keep their line of work secret from friends and family. 

Some members of Pride at Work at the theatre to enjoy the show
Angered, Query and her co-workers decided to organize and unionize the exotic dancers of the Lusty Lady. They got help from the Service Employees International Union SEIU and entered intense and protracted bargaining with a management team coached by a union-busting law firm. Query provides a front row seat for all the difficulties of bargaining, the messy up and down struggles of organizing – from protests, including picketing the club, to media efforts. One organizing slogan was “Bad girls like good contracts”

After intense contract negotiations the workers ratified a one-year agreement with club management providing raises of over 10 percent and greater job security. But the biggest challenge concerned retaining “agency shop” status, requiring workers to join the union. This was fiercely contested by management, which demanded an "open shop" so they could discourage workers from joining the union and then decertify the union.

Lusty Lady workers knew they should avoid  “right to work” stipulations. Their success of unionizing in 1997 gained a notoriety that the New York Times noted “is sure to hearten some women's rights advocates and anger others.”

In 2003, after management cut hourly compensation at the San Francisco Lusty Lady, the workers struck and won, but the closure of the peep show business was announced soon after. The subsequent efforts to turn the club into a worker cooperative were led by Donna Delinqua (stage name), a stripper and graduate student in English. The workers bought the club for $400,000 with money borrowed from the old owners.  Ten years later, the club's lease was not renewed by the landlord,  who some believe is trying to monopolize the sex club industry in the city, and the business finally closed.

The Lusty Lady closed its doors at 3 am on September 2, 2013 and a slew of San Franciscans came out to celebrate its long history in a very festive fashion – they held a memorial funeral parade with the Brass Liberation Orchestra leading a procession of wildly dressed (and undressed) participants.

A twitter farewell reads:   "Good bye, Lusty Lady. Who knew you were @Zagat rated?"

Bess Watts

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