Strippers Are Workers With the Power to Unionize
Strippers have at least one thing in common with Uber drivers: they're the victims of rampant labor misclassification at the hands of their bosses. But Brandi Campbell, an adult dancer in Ohio, fought the practice in court and won. The law is clear: strippers are workers with the right to unionize and strike.
In 2018, Brandi Campbell was working as a stripper at Centerfold Club, an adult entertainment venue in Columbus, Ohio when she wrote a letter to the club’s owner about the club’s rules for dancers. The insistence on high heels, in particular, irked her.
“I’m already quite tall and I hate wearing high heels,” says Campbell, “but they made it mandatory to wear high heels, and one time, the owner whacked my foot with a pool stick because I was wearing ballet flats.”
And there were other gratuitous rules. Every twenty minutes, Centerfold had “up time,” during which dancers had to get up on stage and parade around. There were rules about how much Campbell could charge customers for a dance, and rules about how she should present herself. One time, a manager reprimanded her for sitting with her legs up on a chair, telling her she looked “like a B” (what he meant by this comment was later debated; Campbell says it’s clear that he meant “like a bitch.)
Shortly after she wrote the letter, Centerfold discovered that Campbell maintains a blog about strippers’ labor rights, and that she has a history of suing clubs for violating those rights (she’s been dancing for fourteen years, and began filing unfair labor practice charges and complaints around 2015, a timeline she emphasizes lest anyone think she entered the industry with activist intentions). Suspecting that they might be Campbell’s next target, the club fired her, specifically for violating “no touching” laws — a firing that was later found to be discriminatory.
In response, Campbell sued Centerfold, and in July 2019, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) upheld an earlier ruling, finding that she was an employee protected by federal labor law, not an independent contractor, as the club had claimed, and had been fired for engaging in activities protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
The decision emphasizes the rules Centerfold had in place for strippers, which the board saw as demands set by an employer, rather than less stringent expectations that characterize an independent-contractor relationship. In other words, Centerfold couldn’t have it both ways: either Campbell didn’t have to follow the onerous rules, and was an independent contractor, or she did, and was an employee.
The implication of the ruling is that, as employees, strippers have the right to unionize. But it’s not the first time legal authorities have come to this conclusion. In 2014, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled similarly, finding that while strippers at Sapphire Gentlemen’s Club in Las Vegas were classified as independent contractors, they in fact were employees. As such, their right to collectively organize in the workplace is protected by law — should they want to, they have the right to unionize. Similar rulings regarding misclassification have been made in several states, granting strippers millions in back wages.
In other words, in her case, the NLRB upheld what Campbell knew to already be the case — she was an employee. Had strippers at her club unionized, they would’ve won their suit, regardless of whether Centerfold insists that the dancers are independent contractors.
“Dancers have always had this power,” says Campbell. “In this case, I didn’t actually change any laws, I just flexed these rights and Centerfold didn’t settle.”
Although Campbell’s case applies to one particular strip club, misclassification is an issue far beyond her industry. From Uber and Lyft drivers to yoga teachers, large numbers of workers in a range of industries are misclassified as independent contractors rather than employees, a move that allows employers to get away with denying them benefits — health insurance, overtime pay, and sick pay — and rights to which they’re entitled by law. The fight over misclassification has lately entered the mainstream in California, with ride-sharing companies spending over $100 million on a ballot initiative to allow them a carve-out from the recently passed AB 5 (Assembly Bill 5), which mandates they reclassify their drivers as employees.
Campbell, for her part, emphasizes that she’s no different than anyone else, and wants more workers to exercise their rights.
“Someone emailed me and said that I’m a superhero. I do not feel like a superhero, I just feel like someone who has asserted my rights, which people have already fought for in the past,” she says. “You shouldn’t hero worship when it’s about the people. You want large numbers of people to be doing something; it’s not just about one person.”