I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of a labor union.
Despite that, I have always been the proudest supporter of worker’s rights. Why? Perhaps it’s because I was born on Labor Day weekend, that time of year when we celebrate the massive accomplishments of the American worker, who built the sturdy infrastructure, ran the massive factories, and overcame great, sometimes violent, opposition to basic rights. Or perhaps it’s because I remember being taught moral lessons from my parents when I was very young: you don’t cheat, you don’t steal, you don’t lie, you don’t cross picket-lines.
Or perhaps it’s because of my Jewish background. As you know, Jews have a strong commitment to “Tikkun Olam,” the repairing the world. Partly because of the imperative to fight injustice, and partly because of our identification with the underdog due to our long history of being discriminated against, Jews have always been at the forefront of the Labor Movement, helping to organize for worker’s rights.
So it should come as no surprise that filmmaker / union organizer / stripper Julia Query is Jewish. And her 2000 documentary, “Live Nude Girls Unite!” which chronicles the struggle of the workers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady peep-show theater to form a union in the late 1990s, makes occasional references to Jewish culture.
To help pay her bills, Query got a job as an exotic dancer (read stripper); she and a half-dozen other women would dance nude inside a fishbowl-like stage where men watch them from behind glass windows. Many women take similar jobs to help put them through school, supplement their income, support their families, or raise money to start their own business. Query spends the first ten to fifteen minutes of her film justifying stripping as legitimate work. This is probably necessary since not every member of her audience would start with this assumption. (Judging by some of the reports in the media, which ridiculed the attempt to unionize, not everyone felt that strippers deserved standard workers protection.)
Query had picked the Lusty Lady, as opposed to other strip joints, because most of the owners were women; but it soon became obvious that their gender did not make the management sensitive to women’s needs and issues. Hiring and firing practices were unfair. Workers would have their salaries reduced for being a few minutes late or missing a meeting. They were not allowed to call in sick; they were also denied health-care benefits. And even though it’s illegal, dancers were categorized by race; only one dancer-of-color was scheduled per shift. The women were sexually harassed by their bosses and encouraged to engage in illegal activities. Working conditions were dangerous—in one case, a customer pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot a dancer. Management responded by telling the dancer that it was her fault for being provocative.
The final straw came when management refused to enforce its no-camera policy. That was when the dancers decided to unionize. But as it turned out, voting in the union was the easy part. Negotiating the contract with management was grueling.
Negotiations between the management’s lawyers and a committee from the union, including Query filming it all, dragged on for five months. The biggest bone of contention was whether the union would be an “agency shop” or an “open shop.” The dancers wanted an agency shop because that meant all new workers must join the union; past experience showed that an open shop, where new workers did not have to join the union, weakened unions and caused them to dissolve. Naturally, management preferred an open shop.
To speed up negotiations and put pressure on management, the dancers carried out a hold-back day which they dubbed “No contract, no pussy.” They all danced with their legs closed and refused to show their genitals. In response, management fired one of the dancers. The union demanded her job be reinstated. Management refused, so the union picketed.
Potential customers refused to cross the picket-line. (Only one guy crossed the picket-line. The picketers chanted, “2, 4, 6, 8! Don’t go in to masturbate!”) Dancers on the stage showed cryptic messages to customers written on their hands: “Don’t spend $ here; management unfair 2 labor.” The customers walked out. Say what you will about the morals of men who patronize such establishments; they were union men and showed solidarity.
In response, management held a lock-out, shutting down the place for three days. A test of wills to see who was stronger. Will the union strike? That then becomes the big issue in the film.
There is another very important concern running through the film. That is Ms. Query’s relationship with her mother, Dr. Joyce Wallace, who is an outspoken advocate of prostitute rights and has helped many prostitutes on the streets of New York. She even appeared on “20/20” with Barbara Walters. But despite her women’s rights and pro-union work, she is in many ways the typical Jewish mother and wants more for her daughter than to be a stripper. For this reason, Query has been afraid to tell her mother what she’s been doing. She spends two-thirds of the film making up lies about her work to hide the truth from her mother.
Finally she gets up the nerve to tell her mother in a rather climatic moment. Tears are shed and questions are asked about what makes a good mother, a good daughter, a good woman.
As a documentary, “Live Nude Girls Unite!” is very good. It’s edited well—if not handled right, the issue of the mother-daughter relationship could have seemed unrelated to the union-management fight. But in the way it is put together, the two stories really complement each other well and lend additional insight.
If the film has a single flaw, it’s that it’s told completely from Ms. Query’s point of view. None of the managers are interviewed; we’re never told their side of the story. But perhaps that’s not necessary, since it is such a personal film. Besides, if you want to know why management exploits labor, there are plenty of other places you can go to learn that.
Jews have always fought against injustice. Not just in the Labor Movement, but we’ve fought for Civil Rights, for gay rights, for reproductive rights, for free speech, for immigrants, for Soviet Refuseniks, for peace in Vietnam, for Women’s Suffrage, for a nuclear-free world, for an end to genocide in Darfur, for an end to sexism and racism and homelessness, for peace and justice everywhere. “Live Nude Girls Unite!” is part of that proud Jewish heritage, as we continue the struggle to heal the world.
And so to honor of our proud service in the Labor Movement, I would like to conclude this review with a song. Everybody sing with me (to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”):
[Although this film is not rated, parents should be strongly cautioned. It contains nudity and pro-labor sentiments that may be inappropriate for children from conservative families.]