Strippers and sex workers on forefront of propaganda battle over workers’ rights
Courtesy of Brendan Lott

In September of 2019, California Assembly Bill No. 5 (AB5) was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom. The new law was meant to ensure gig workers would have employee classification status, otherwise, the onus was on the employer to prove workers were independent contractors using a three-pronged test.

This test, also known as the ABC test, “assumes workers are employees unless the company that hires them can prove” three points:

  1. The worker is free to perform services without the control or direction of the company.
  2. The worker is performing work tasks that are outside the usual course of the company’s business activities.
  3. The worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.

This law went into effect in January of 2020, and although AB5 was meant to regulate companies that hired gig workers in “large numbers, such as Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash” the law had far-ranging effects on workers across various industries. Tech workers, accountants, truckers, construction workers, those in franchise groups, and more were now entitled “to workers comp, unemployment insurance, paid sick and family leave, and health insurance.”

Many jobs are exempt from AB5 structurally, but this doesn’t mean workers have zero power in these cases. Should workers want to remain independent contractors, they have to pass the Borello test, which is considered not as strict as the ABC test.

In November of 2020, Proposition 22 — which reversed employee status for app-based drivers — showed up on the ballot and won by a margin of over 2.9 million votes. Prop. 22 declared anyone working for app-based ride hailing and delivery companies could be classified as independent contractors.

Although one California state judge ruled Prop. 22 as unconstitutional, such propositions have a lot of financial backing from stakeholders and concerned parties— like the companies themselves. Propositions like this do not bode well for the future of labor; however, something much more sinister is at work, and right now strippers are undergoing some of the more ruthless attacks on this employee status.

“There is a massive propaganda machine at work here,” Antonia Crane told People’s World. “Club owners have been making strippers’ lives miserable. They have cleaved their employee rosters; fired Black and brown strippers; fired veteran strippers; incited hostility among employees; exacerbated inequalities; and then turned around and blamed AB5 for it.”

“The clubs are blaming a law that exists only for workers, and independent contracts cannot legally unionize,” said Crane, the founder of Strippers United, a non-profit advocating for safer and equitable work environments for strippers. “Being extorted more and then blaming employee status — this is what we’re up against. Club owners have warped the language successfully to make it sound like the state of California is out to get workers.”

Strippers United, according to their website, states their “ultimate vision” as “dismantl[ling] whorephobia and decriminaliz[ing] sex work.” The group has been heavily involved in organizing workers. Earlier this year, strippers at Star Garden in North Hollywood walked out and went on strike after concerns over safety and poor management practices. They have been picketing since March, and Strippers United has been supporting them from the beginning behind the scenes and on the picket line.

“Many strippers at Star Garden were already members of Strippers United. They built power and organized, and having that optimism is not something you normally see,” said Crane. “This misogyny and whoreaphobia and worker-on-worker hostility — Star Garden dancers are actively working against that.”

One company, Déjà Vu Services Inc., which has over 200 locations across the nation, has a particular interest in seeing AB5 overturned.

“They are the Amazon of strip clubs. They bought all the clubs in San Francisco and are using things like the fear of job security and increased cost of living to disempower workers,” clarified Crane. “I have been working in clubs since 1992 and in that time Deja Vu has been buying up a lot of real estate. Meanwhile, they have normalized all these criminal practices of wage theft, assault, racism, and job precarity.”

“AB5 is not bad, club owners are bad. Robbing workers, charging workers to work, cutting employee rosters to weaken worker solidarity [is] the problem,” the founder of Strippers United explained. “Charging people to work and calling it by different fictions, like ‘renting a room,’ is simply robbing workers who exist at the intersection of multiple oppressions.”

The use of language is important because it’s not enough to point out the propaganda here. Anyone from outside the industry looking in can point out that “renting a room” seems wrong or not worth the expense, and yet several industries have similar, normalized rent structures — especially for independent contractors. This kind of wage theft doesn’t need illusions or to even be fully hidden, because we tend to accept it in so many other situations. We can be good at lying to ourselves when the theft appears “more legitimate” or simply appears to offer “independent contractor freedoms” but in fact take freedoms away.

For example, when logistics companies say AB5 means drivers will “have much less flexibility in choosing their work” it sounds an awful lot like the arguments for having the “freedom to choose” one’s own health insurance plan as opposed to universal healthcare. What freedom? What flexibility? Which choices are they even talking about? We’re not fully unaware of the spin, but it does become easier to lie to oneself when worded in a certain way. What helps to undo the effects of propaganda is the realization of how many others it is hurting, and that is precisely what people like Crane and Strippers United are aiming at.

Like the revolutionary union movements of Detroit in the ’60s and ’70s, Crane notes the importance of sex workers’ political involvement in the process: “Strippers and sex workers didn’t have a say in the matter [of AB5]. We should have had a voice at the table considering the law would be directly impacting our livelihoods. Anytime a law will affect our lives, we need a seat at the table.”

In the meantime, Crane offers strippers some advice on protecting themselves:

“Keep records. Take photos of anything that you are forced to sign and your zero-sum pay stubs and all receipts. The reason we can unionize is because employees are recognized by the National Labor Relations Board. Currently, independent contractors cannot. In order to negotiate a new contract in California and beyond; to push for safe working conditions; to push for anti-discrimination, and fair hiring and firing policies; to push for safety measures; [to have] trained, legit security; to stop tip stealing; to make it so no worker should be charged to work, we need to organize.”

It is not enough to say that those organizing and striking in California are fighting the battles of yesterday. If there is any takeaway from the efforts of strippers and sex workers today it’s that their particular struggle for rights, legal protections, safety, and decriminalization is a lesson in organizing across all industries.

As with many news, analytical, and op-ed articles published by People’s World, any opinions reflected in this article are solely those of its author.


Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.