Sex workers seeking their own collective agency


The Lusty Lady peep show in San Francisco (Wikimedia Commons)

by Gregor Gall

The Lusty Lady peepshow, based in San Francisco, was the pinnacle of the achievements of the global sex worker unionisation phenomenon. Between 1997 and 2013, union recognition, collective bargaining and job control existed under conventional management and then under cooperative ownership (when the establishment closed due to financial pressures).  Its peculiarity in comparison to the vast majority of other sex workers highlights the broad and substantial nature challenges for sex worker unionisation.

The exotic dancers at the Lusty Lady were employed, paid a minimum wage and not in direct contact with customers. The imports of these were they could use the certification law to gain union recognition (which self-employed workers cannot), they were not in competition with each other as other dancers usually are for customers and the Service Emlployees International Union was amenable to helping organise them given it did not have to practice ‘open source’ unionism to do so.

Furthermore, the Lusty Lady attracted a certain kind of dancer, namely, politically progressive women, and the establishment was a peepshow and not a lapdancing or strip club where clients have more influence over dancer performances.

What this group of sex workers and others face as well is that they are deemed to be self-employed (‘independent contractors’) so they have almost nothing in the way of workers’ rights or entitlements. Sex workers in prostitution also face the criminalisation of their work in many countries or its heavy regulation (where, for example, buying sex is criminalised or registration of prostitutes is required). Seldom is prostitution subject to decriminalisation where it then has the status of a conventional business enterprise (like in New Zealand).

Yet I show in my newly published book, Sex Worker Unionisation: global developments, challenges and possibilities, advances – albeit small ones – have been made in forming and advancing sex worker unionisation projects in a number of countries around the world.

The spurs to unionisation have been the realisation that despite surface appearances sex work is work much like any other work and that sex workers as workers need and want rights at work. This is because sex workers have problems in common with other workers such as lack of holiday pay, fines for bogus infractions at work, being compelled to do unpaid overtime, bullying by managers, being forced to work long hours without breaks etcetera.

And there are also some different problems which most workers don’t have to face like having to pay fees to work and purchasing work items from their bosses. From both, a sense of injustice and an array of grievances have developed.

Added to discontent over these issues is that sex workers have wanted to add a political voice to their newly found economic voice. Consequently, sex workers have used unionisation to articulate their voice in the public arena over the issue of the legal reform of the position of sex work.

But unionisation has been no easy task. The numbers involved have been small, progress limited in making substantive gains and many organisations have folded.

Yet despite internal and external problems when one organisation has folded another has emerged to take its place and carry on the battle for representation. This demonstrates the continuing demand for collective interest representation and the willingness of the activists to step up to the plate to provide that representation. Sex worker unionisation is, thus, a work in progress and a battle still being fought out across the world.

It is here that the notion of occupational unionism may have some particular purchase. Unions which organise at the level of the occupation, rather than the workplace, seek to establish a floor of terms and conditions with capital (owners, operators) across and throughout workplaces because the work their members do is peripatetic, often in small groups and of a short duration. Sex workers in brothels and lapdancing clubs approximate more closely to this situation that any other.

Of course, occupational labour unionism has to be based on their being an occupation and one which has elements of a profession to it (such as some degree of regulation to entry to the occupation and of behaviour within the occupation). Seeking to establish occupational rights and status is no easy feat in society and will take a long time to achieve. But given that the industry structure and conditions of both brothels and lapdancing are unlikely to be subject to significant changes, the suggestion has much merit to it.

Through their activism, sex workers have the best chance to mould occupationalism and labour unionism into a credible force.

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford. His new book, Sex Worker Unionization: Global Developments, Challenges and Possibilities is published by Palgrave.

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