“I Didn’t Know Anyone Cared About us or Our Safety.”

The build up to the hearing of the proposed regulatory ordinance of the Minneapolis adult entertainment landscape by the Public Health, Environment, Civil Rights, and Engagement Committee of the Minneapolis City Council had been bubbling for weeks.

As we reported last week. With the Minneapolis City Council Ordinance, Sex Worker Organziing Project (SWOP) Minneapolis is pushing for, amongst many things, 1) banning tipping of management and owners, 2) contract transparency, and 3) health advocacy and health standards. As SWOP Minneapolis and Feminist Strip Club Organizer (FSC) organizer explains,

our situation is really unique in that the city council has changed so much recently. We have a lot of young, and queer, and people of color on our city council right now. And Cam Gordon, the one who put this ordinance forward, he is an older white guy who has a really long history of labor rights, he’s been really cool throughout this process…We’re trying to turn the levers of government to work in our favor, and the law is on our side in so many different ways.

Erotic dancers and their supporters were asked to wear red and pack the room. This proved to be an effective strategy as the presence of those wearing red was in the majority and the meeting was standing room only. Many also held posters stating “Minneapolis Supports Strippers.” 

Andi Snow testified that she had been dancing for 16 years, most of which has been in Minneapolis. She sees the ordinance as a “unique opportunity to do something great.”

“My coworkers mean the world to me and they are my chosen family.” Snow said. The passage of the ordinance is “going to improve the lives of people I care very deeply about.”

University of Minnesota graduate student Jayne Swift commented that city government has historically contributed to labor problems in the industry by regulating adult entertainment as an obscenity, zoning measure and social nuisance, “something to cover up, contain and curb.”

In the past the focus has been on regulating the bodies of dancers instead of scrutinizing management and ownership practices and holding them accountable. 

“When erotic dance is treated as a public embarrassment, workers find very little help in their struggles with an exploitative pay structure, racist management or harassment” Swift said. “Standing with erotic dancers is a matter of gender, racial, and economic justice.” 

Kjersti Bohrer testified that she worked in clubs since she was 18. At first she was told that customers could not touch her even though she saw dancers sitting on laps. She described the first physical assault as shocking. She remembering jumping away, noticing that “the customer and bouncer laughed at me.” She didn’t feel that anyone would support her and it was unclear what she could do to protect herself within the club walls. At the end of their shifts the”manager would call out loud what every girl made,” which created completion. She also“felt intimidated to tip the manager.”

Yesterday’s hearing represented a first step in erotic dancers realizing a vision of a more dignified workplace. 

For those that have shaped and formed the ordinance, this represents a long process that started in 2016 when concerns over unsanitary conditions were raised to the City Health Department.

Inspections in February 2017 found “stains of concern” at one club. The semen stains revealed that both workers and patrons in the club were exposed to worrisome environmental health conditions. 

Direct participation by those most impacted through organizing and making multiple reports helped to spur yesterday’s hearing. 

For our part, Workday’s team of writers worked closely with “The Feminist Strip Club” to give a group of adult entertainers the opportunity to directly represent their experiences, hopes and frustrations. 

One of the reports that informed the ordinance was developed by the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) under the direction of Lauren Martin. She emphasized that the process that led to the development of the ordinance is a model of the way local government can support and include communities stigmatized and thus often not able to safely and directly advocate for improvements in their working conditions. 

I think we can’t overestimate the profound ways that stigma shapes people’s experiences working in strip clubs and their ability to actually advocate for themselves because there can be serious collateral consequences in other workplaces and family for people to step out as organizers, or even to talk about their experiences. There can also be serious repercussions on the job.

Many dancers present at the hearing echoed the same concerns and anxiety in stepping forward to speak at the hearing. 

Ramona, an organizer with the Sex Worker Organizing Project MPLS (SWOP) and an author of the needs assessment survey organized through Dr. Eric Sprankle’s team at Minnesota State University, Mankato spoke at the hearing summarizing the challenges in advocating for better policy for adult entertainers. 

Ramona explained that she is “taking a sizable risk professionally and personally due to stigma and unchecked retaliation from the club should I find myself trying to get hired at a Minneapolis club in the future. As a white cis women I want to acknowledge that these risks will always be smaller for me. It is for this reason that I am able to be here today and others cannot.”

Ramona further explained that “this industry exists as a microcosm of greater society and it  is rife with structural racism, misogyny and classism.”

These dynamics show up most acutely within the practice of dancers tipping management. Many speakers testified that tipping managers encourages a culture of favoritism that benefits white women in the club. 

The process that led to the writing of the ordinance also included club owners and their representatives. Their presence at the hearing was minimal. Brad Shafer represents Deja Vu, Dream Girls and Spearmint Rhino and went to two meetings to give feedback on the proposed ordinance. He stated that he appreciated “listening to the input and were making appropriate changes to the ordinance.” His only concern was a timeline to make construction changes and complying with what would be new rules regarding furniture fabric. In order to hold higher standards for cleanliness the ordinance requires fabric that would make it easier to clean bodily fluids. 

Five workers of Downtown Cabaret who identified themselves as representatives spoke out against aspects of the ordinance and all repeated the same sentiment: issues in strip clubs “should be addressed club by club.” They also spoke in favor of tipping management. They testified that their experience dancing had been working in supportive environments and felt that harassment happened more often in restaurant work. 

Andi Snow responded by saying “I hope that all the people from Downtown Cabaret who have had such a privileged experience, and haven’t faced harm or discrimination can want that for the rest of us too.”

University of Minnesota Law Professor Steve Befort studies the plight of precarious workers. He testified that a large portion of the exploitation women face in clubs is due to their independent contractor status. Befort explained that independent contractors are not subject to the same protections that employees are. Clubs get away with tip pooling because most of the dancers are independent contractors. 

“What the ordinance attempts to do is extend to independent contractors the same rights that state law applies to employees,” Befort said. “I think this will go a long way towards ending financial exploitation, discriminatory treatment and feminization of poverty.”

After listening to testimony, Council Member and co-author of the ordinance Cam Gordon commented that, “When I ran for office I never expected to regulate the adult entertainment industry.” He further stated, “I think we did this in an incredible way.” For Godon, passage of this ordinance “is about social and economic justice.” Gordon valued the interactivity which challenged his own preconceived ideas of what would improve the industry, “so many fantastic partners..my friends at SWOP, thank you.”

Council member and co-author Linea Palmisano echoed Gordon’s sentiments. “Every worker in our city deserves a safe environment,” Palmisano said. “This workforce is marginalized and stigmatized and shouldn’t be.”

Committee Chair and council member Phillippe Cunningham stated, “supporting workers rights is something that I am very committed to.” He expressed that it is the council’s responsibility to protect people.

In an earlier statement made before she needed to leave, Council member Andrea Jenkins stated, “I want to express my support for this ordinance. This is one step forward for workers rights, certainly for sex workers rights. Passing this is a step in that direction to lift up and support all sex workers.”

The ordinance passed out of the committee and will go to the full council on Aug 23, 2019.

Filiberto Nolasco Gomez is a former union organizer and former editor of Minneapolis based Workday Minnesota, the first online labor news publication in the state. Filiberto focused on longform and investigative journalism. He has covered topics including prison labor, labor trafficking, and union fights in the Twin Cities.

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