Before Sandy Bottoms began dancing at the Lusty Lady, the iconic North Beach strip club, she was studying labor history at San Francisco State University.
When she needed to find a job, the idea of working for the nation’s only employee-owned unionized strip club appealed to her. It has, in her words, “been an amazing experience” over the past three years.
“Everyone there has sweat equity in, we’ve put in our own money and our time,” said Bottoms, “At least two marriages have resulted from that place.”
But nine years after workers purchased the club for $400,000, the Lusty Lady is on the verge of closing, prompting questions about whether its labor structure limited its ability to make money.
This past weekend, workers held an emergency vote to decide whether to sell the business for $25,000, according to a dancer whose stage name is Lorelei. The proposal failed, prompting the departure of several employees and, as reported by Uptown Almanac and SFist, six of the club’s 7 board members, including Bottoms.
Most strip club dancers are “independent contractors” who earn money dancing for tips. Often they have to pay the clubs for stage time, a system that can make the dancers vulnerable to exploitative business practices.
When the Lusty Lady’s dancers voted to unionize in 1997, they wanted to protect themselves from such practices. In 2003, the workers bought the business and turned it into a cooperative, making it perhaps the most San Francisco strip club in San Francisco. The club’s employees receive hourly salaries and those who are part of the co-op also share in its revenue (when there is revenue.)
In recent months, Bottoms has earned about $11 an hour, demoralizing pay for what she described as “highly stigmatized work that is not recognized.”
“It’s a shitty feeling,” she said, “to be walking away from a shift with as much money as if I have a barista job.”
Tempest, another Lusty Lady dancer, told the pro-labor newsmagazine “In These Times,” that she has had second thoughts about unionizing, a move she once supported. She questioned whether unionization “is conducive to strip club profits.”
But Lorelei said that when all expenses were accounted for, she made more money at the Lusty Lady than she did dancing for tips at other clubs. “There is a feeling, like gambling, where you have that great night, that gives you two thousand in the VIP room,” she said, “But at the Lusty, it’s consistent.”
Bottoms had already planned to quit dancing, because she is heading to law school in the fall, but she had considered remaining a co-op member. Spooked by the prospect of owing money should the business incur debt — a risk all members of the collective face, Bottoms walked away.
“The business had been in decline for a long time,” she said, “The peep show, as wonderful and amazing a model as it is, in no way can compete with free internet porn.”
The Lusty is looking for another buyer, according to Lorelei. She said that the business isn’t in the red yet, but acknowledged that departures mean the collective has to take in more revenue to break even. Currently, one of the biggest threats to its solvency is a $20,000 tax bill.
But Lorelei remained upbeat about finding another buyer, explaining that the deal on the table this past weekend was inadequate. She also noted that the club, which was founded in 1976 and started hosting nude girls in the ‘80s, has begun offering lap dances and web cam streams, two potential sources of revenue. “We're not saying that the Lusty Lady doesn't need to be rescued in a big way,” she said.
Bottoms was less enthused. “I'm afraid for the union. We’re the only unionized strip club in the U.S.,” she said, “I fear that beacon is going to disappear.”