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New York Stripper Strike
Jonathan Turton

Inside New York’s stripper strike

Dancers are losing money, competing with Instagram girls, and have zero job security – Gizelle Marie and her gang are fighting back

It was dawn on a cold New York morning in late October, 2017. Gizelle Marie had returned home from the strip club she worked at in South Queens with $180, on a night where she used to make anything between $500 and $1000. The sum didn’t seem like a fair trade for the arduous evening she’d just endured. Yet this kind of figure was, and is, becoming less and less irregular for strippers across the five boroughs for an evening’s work.

Later that day – in the city many consider the home of stripping – a collection of girls, led by Gizelle, went on strike, a movement that has since become known online as #NYCSTRIPPERSTRIKE. The primary reason for action was a new trend of club owners hiring girls that have become known as ‘Startenders’ – Instagram-famous bartenders that serve drinks yet also dance, ciphering money that’s traditionally been the preserve of dancers.

Fast forward into 2018, and not only is the dispute unresolved, it has sparked a broader conversation about the general rights of strippers in their chosen line of employment.

“We’re struggling to do our job,” says Gizelle, speaking in the modest backroom of a strip club in Hunt’s Point, The Bronx. “In the last year our earnings have halved, in some cases. Dancers have to be happy and making money, otherwise what’s the point?”  

When it comes to workers’ rights in the US, strippers have long been at the bottom of the totem pole. Between ‘house fees’ – scrupulous charges that dancers have to pay to club owners each shift in order to work – and unsanitary conditions, progress in working standards has been minimal over the past 25 years. Not to mention, there has been a complete absence of wages being paid to strippers by clubs during that time.

“Dancers all over the country don’t realise that they have rights” says Gizelle. “A lot of these girls aren’t educated about these things, but lawsuits have been happening for years (against clubs).

“A lot of dancers aren’t taking this serious. Everybody wants to stay quiet, keep making some money, but it’s time to put these issues on blast.”

Complaints levelled at club owners are varied and numerous. A prevalent bone of contention is that strippers are classified by clubs as independent contractors, thus enabling club owners to shirk many basic duties an ordinary employer would be bound by. Yet the same employers readily exercise their right, as bosses, to fire girls on the spot for seemingly trivial misdemeanours.

“We have zero job security”, says Gizelle. “Bosses can send you home if they don’t like the look of you on any particular night. We get no benefits, no healthcare. By the time we’ve mandatory tipped everyone from the house-mom (a mother figure that helps dancers backstage) to the DJ, our earnings for the night are massively depleted.”

“Club owners have created an environment where, basically, girls are working against each other. I want to implement laws that protect us, and other women’s futures that might come into the stripping game.”

“Bosses can send you home if they don’t like the look of you on any particular night. We get no benefits, no healthcare” – Gizelle Marie

Many of the issues described by Gizelle have been prevalent in the industry for years, not only in New York but throughout America. The catalyst for this latest discussion regarding stripper’s rights, however, has been the emergence of ‘Startenders’, formerly known as Bottle Girls.

“These bartenders aren’t bartenders” adds Gizelle, “nor do they have etiquette as strippers. They’re girls with large Instagram followers brought in by promoters in the hope that their ‘fans’ will follow. They’re taking our work from us, and we’re struggling.”

Strippers argue that “Startenders” don’t pay “house fees” and don’t have to endure the stigma of the occupation in their daily lives. “Depending on the club you work at in the city, a dancer can be paying up to $300 to work a shift,” says Gizelle.. “Most people don’t know that side of stripping. Bartenders aren’t paying. We can’t go and pour a drink, so why are they dancing?”

These au courant servers no longer just administer drinks, but dress as strippers do, dance, and compete for tips that originally belonged to dancers. Racism is also a concern. In many of these cases, the aggrieved dancers tend to be black and the bartenders white or Latina.

“They’re girls with large Instagram followers brought in by promoters in the hope that their ‘fans’ will follow. They’re taking our work from us, and we’re struggling” – Gizelle Marie

With many clubs now positioning poles behind the bar, a ‘Startender’s proximity to customers places them advantageously to collect money. These subtle yet pertinent changes are further dismantling an already delicate ecosystem.

“Years ago it wasn’t like this,” says Gizelle. “We’d have little cat fights over money but now it’s to a point where everybody has to strive for a dollar.” An inability to assimilate these bartenders into the workplace is yet another failure on the part of strip club management. Strippers not only feel light of pocket, but light of worth.

“For the ‘Startenders’ or whatever, this isn’t a career, it’s a hustle. But stripping is an occupation for a lot of women. In other cities we still have respect, but in New York, strippers are bottom of the barrel. Dark-skinned strippers are all the way at the bottom of the barrel. It’s like, what is our purpose? What are we paying the club money for?”

Despite an unwanted reputation as a marginalised workforce, Strippers have successfully organised themselves in the past. In 1996, a group of dancers working at The Lusty Lady defeated their bosses in San Francisco, not only to unionise, but to become the first worker-run cooperative in the country. Notably too, in November of 2013, another band of strippers were awarded a $13M settlement in a national class-action lawsuit against the Spearmint Rhino club in Oxnard.

“There are laws in existence right now, that if enforced, would protect us” says Gizelle. “If all dancers in the United States came together we really could make a change.”

It would be disingenuous to suggest that every stripper in the industry would be happy with sweeping legislation. Some dancers are content living on the margins of society; benefitting, in some instances, from the illegitimacy of the clubs they dance in. (Some work illegally; others indulge in illegal activities.)

Additionally, unionising would unquestionably be more difficult for strippers than it would for, say, photographers or engineers, as without any formal training necessary for the job, a replacement workforce is readily available. Yet none of these points detract from the need to challenge the exploitation of labour currently happening in strip clubs.

One desired outcome of the strike is to find new ways to keep strippers safe. “One thing that could help the situation would be having a management team just for the strippers,” says Gizelle. “ A lot of young girls come into the game, even myself, without knowing what comes with being a dancer. We have to put up with a lot. I’ve been in a lot of situations where, you know, I praise God I was lucky to get out. There are a lot of women who don’t get out of it.”

“We have to put up with a lot. I’ve been in a lot of situations where, you know, I praise God I was lucky to get out. There are a lot of women who don’t get out of it” – Gizelle Marie

When a manager tells a dancer how to move, what to wear, what songs to dance to, even the amount of time they are permitted to have their clothes on, they’re violating the principles of contracted labour: that the employer cannot legally control the manner in which work is performed. Strippers claim that club managers are picking and choosing the labour laws they wish to follow. The ‘Startender’ issue, as well as racial profiling, are calamities in a long line of industry failures.

Gizelle Marie and her peers are not being afforded basic rights as American workers. With a plethora of equality movements convalescing in 2018, from trans rights to women’s, and the highly effective #MeToo campaign, now is the perfect moment for strippers to step out of the shadows and into the light of a legitimate, labour situation.   

“I work around these women everyday,” says Gizelle. “I see them being mistreated. Why can’t I say something? Outside of stripping, these women are mothers, grandmothers, students, entrepreneurs and your coworkers in other jobs. It might take years, but change needs to happen. We deserve so much more.”