If you've taken a women's studies course in the past decade or if you're a patron or follower of the sex industry, you've heard of San Francisco's Lusty Lady. Depicted as a bastion of feminist values and workers' rights, the 24-hour peep show floats amid the sea of macho-style strip clubs that dominate North Beach's central strip.
Sure, the Lusty features live nude girls wiggling and jiggling while male customers masturbate in small enclosed booths, but dancers are protected from unwanted splashes of semen and sexual advances thanks to the panel of glass that separates them from the customers. Equally important, at least in the eyes of feminist voyeurs and dancers, is the theater's reputation for having a broader vision of female beauty than prevailing cultural norms and for being a venue where discrimination simply isn't tolerated. These credentials date back to the ’90s, when the club's dancers traded boas for picket signs in what became a successful bid to organize the only unionized strip joint in the nation.
Back then, the drive to unionize was triggered by poor working conditions, including one-way mirrors that allowed customers, newly empowered with the affordable digital technology that emerged in the mid-’90s, to clandestinely film performers. Worried their images would end up as Internet porn or in bootleg videos or used against them in custody battles, the dancers and the male support staff joined forces and won representation with SEIU Local 790.
Less publicized is the fact that three years ago the club's former management sold the business to the Lusty's workforce. Since then, the theater has been run as an employee-owned cooperative, with an elected board of directors that signs the union's collective bargaining agreement every year. Given the harsh fiscal climate that followed the dot-com bomb and the workers' general lack of business experience prior to their involvement in the Looking Glass Collective (as the Lusty's co-op is called), it's no big surprise that the theater is currently facing some fiscal and management challenges.
But the next chapter in the Lusty Lady saga is the strangely twisted tale of how a small faction of male workers is trying to decertify the union against a backdrop of inflammatory e-mails, emotional outbursts, suspensions, and firings, along with competing allegations from dancers of sexual harassment and unfair labor practices.
It all started when one of the men began to argue that the place was losing money because the dancers were too fat.
Now some male co-op members (who work the front desk and the door and have the unpleasant job of cleaning the little rooms) say the union contract isn't valid anymore because the co-op makes no distinction between management and labor. They are also spinning events to make it appear as if the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) agrees.
DANCERS OF SIZE
The tale goes back to July, when a support staffer named Davide Cerri sent the co-op board an e-mail complaining that the peep show's revenues were falling off. Since everybody's pay at the Lusty is based on monthly revenues, any decline in cash flow would hit every worker's wallet.
Cerri claimed that the Lusty's madams were hiring "unwatchable girls" — women who were too big and not quite sexy enough — and that as a result, the club lost money.
"People comes [sic] asking for refunds, because they do not want to see girls that they would not want to have sex with even if they were completely drunk," Cerri wrote. "This is reality, not question of options.