Sign-holding strippers chanted, “Strip my clothes, not my rights,” during a protest outside Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez’s downtown San Diego office Thursday.
The roughly 25 exotic dancers, whose signs said things such as “stripped of our independence” and “make stripping great again,” oppose a Gonzalez bill they believe would force them to become employees rather than independent contractors.
The San Diego Democrat’s legislation in question, AB 5, would codify into law the California Supreme Court’s 2018 Dynamex decision that makes it more difficult for employers to classify workers as independent contractors.
Gonzalez, with supporters nearby holding signs in favor of the bill that said “#Disrupt Inequality!”, engaged with the protestors. She told them that they should already be classified as employees due to other court rulings and laws in place.
“My bill has nothing do with the state of your employment,” Gonzalez said.
The wild scene was the latest in what is likely to be a year-long battle over Gonzalez’s legislation.
But it was far from the first time the exotic dancing industry has landed at the center of prominent political and legal issues in San Diego, and it is unlikely to be the last.
Events surrounding the local exotic dancing industry drew frequent headlines back in the early-to-mid 2000s as a result of the infamous “Strippergate” public corruption case that featured a federal raid of San Diego City Hall and ensnared local politicians.
Three members of the San Diego City Council were indicted in 2003 for allegedly taking illegal campaign contributions from a strip club owner in exchange for promising they would work to lift the city’s so-called “no touch” ordinance prohibiting nude dancers from touching patrons.
Former Councilman Ralph Inzunza was convicted in 2005 and later served nearly two years in federal custody.
Former Councilman Michael Zucchet was convicted as well, but a federal judge threw out seven of Zucchet’s convictions and the other two were later dismissed. Former Councilman Charles Lewis died in 2004 prior to the trial.
Michael Galardi, the former owner of Cheetahs strip club, pleaded guilty to bribing politicians both in San Diego and Nevada. At his sentencing, he apologized for embarrassing San Diego. He spent 18 months in prison.
Lance Malone, Galardi’s lobbyist, was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.
A different kind of raid at two Kearny Mesa strip clubs in 2013 and 2014 also generated headlines and led to legal action. Police raids of the clubs drew national attention and sparked questions about the propriety of the tactics involved.
Police were reported to have swarmed Cheetahs Gentleman Club in March 2014 with guns and bulletproof vests.
An attorney representing the dancers said they were forced to “expose body parts” so police could photograph their tattoos, leaving some of them traumatized.
A police spokesman said then that one of the responsibilities of the department’s Vice Unit is to conduct random inspections of strip clubs to ensure dancers are complying with the law and have the required permits.
More than a dozen dancers who worked at Cheetahs and Exposé sued the city of San Diego, alleging their constitutional rights were violated.
The city agreed last October to pay about $1.5 million to settle the suits brought by 17 dancers.
In the course of the litigation, a federal judge ruled in March 2018 that the city ordinance outlining how police inspect the strip clubs violated the First Amendment.
The city attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment this week on whether the ordinance has been updated.
Worker Classification Suits
While the debate about whether strippers should be classified as employees or independent contractors is playing out very publicly now, it was already the subject of court battles launched from San Diego.
Last May, a class-action lawsuit was filed in San Diego Superior Court against Deja Vu Services Inc. on behalf of exotic dancers at Deja Vu-affiliated clubs statewide. One such club is Deja Vu Showgirls on Midway Drive in San Diego.
The class-action suit argued that under both the Dynamex decision and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, the dancers had been miscast as independent contractors.
A judge rejected a proposed $1.5 settlement of that case in late 2018 after some dancers objected. They alleged the roughly $900,000 combined that would go to the 5,800 dancers in the class was paltry.
Despite the rejection of the settlement, Deja Vu converted its dancers in California to employees late last year.
Early in 2019, Boston attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan filed a new class-action lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court alleging dancers at Deja Vu clubs in California were retaliated against for filing the earlier lawsuit.
Deja Vu has denied the allegations. Both the new suit and the previous one remain active.
Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College, said there was an easy answer for why exotic dancers have frequently drawn headlines in San Diego.
“One word: Strippers,” he said. “When you are talking about an employee relations issue of independent contractors versus employees, peoples’ eyes may glaze over. But as soon as you put the word stripper into that, they will pay attention to it.”
Luna suggested that tourism being a major industry in San Diego may also be a factor in issues involving strippers popping up through the years.
“It is actually more remarkable to me you don’t hear more about this as an issue,” he said.
Alana Evans, a former adult film performer who did some exotic dancing during her two-decade career, offered a very different take. She moved to San Diego about a year ago from Los Angeles and quickly saw that members of sex-related industries seem to have a much stronger voice and more cohesion here.
“In L.A., it is easy for the dancers, sex workers and the adult film actors to get lost in the fray,” Evans said. “I’ve noticed the community here is more close-knit. I see there is a lot more involvement with things happening within the city, and that is something I’ve noticed the minute I’ve moved here. It’s something I really appreciate about living here now.”
Evans is now president of the Adult Performers Actors Guild.
She said she was encouraged to read and hear about dancers in San Diego advocating for themselves in the legal system, including for employee status, often with much success.
“For me being new to the area with my background, it makes me really hopeful for the workers here,” she said.
Evans, however, was on the receiving end of what she called “slut-shaming” from the dancers during Thursday’s protest, who objected to being compared to an adult film performer.
“They are not going to get anywhere with that type of attitude,” she said.
The Stormy Factor
As for the worker classification issue, local political consultant Tom Shepard said Stormy Daniels writing an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about the topic certainly helped generate a lot of the media interest in the dancer angle.
“There are a lot of other industries with views on this issue, but they don’t get as much publicity,” he said. “Stormy Daniels is a well-known personality.”
Daniels, a stripper and adult film actress best-known for her alleged affair with President Donald Trump, argued in the op-ed that exotic dancers need legislation giving them the option of working as independent contractors.
Gonzalez took umbrage on Twitter and in interviews about Daniels’ stance.
Gonzalez also recently voiced disappointment on Twitter that reporters were spending “such disproportionate time” on how Dynamex and AB 5 could affect strippers rather than focusing on the hundreds of thousands of other workers “being squeezed out of middle class due to misclassification.”
She said Thursday that strippers get a lot of media attention because “sex is clickbait.”