Documentary follows stripers’ union fight

Robin Shulman Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday October 17, 2000

Julia Query always dreamed of fighting the good fight for freedom, justice and equality, she says at the start of her movie “Live Nude Girls UNITE!” She never expected to realize that dream by organizing fellow strippers into a union. 

In 1997 Query led peep show workers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady to form the country’s only unionized strip club, and she documented the fight in “Live Nude Girls UNITE!,” playing through Thursday at the UC Theatre. In the background of the union fight, Query also struggles for the approval of her mother, a prostitute rights advocate who still is upset by her daughter’s work. 

“As soon as we unionized, Jay Leno was making jokes about us. We started to feel protective of our story,” said Query Saturday night at the movie’s Berkeley premiere. The strippers at the Lusty Lady formed a union after management refused to take action against customers using one-way mirrors to secretly videotape the shows-rumored to sell on the Internet. The club’s managers suggested “coyly coaxing” customers into good behavior. 

But the women were also fed up with a system that granted them work shifts according to their skin and hair color and breast size.  

Only white women were scheduled for the most lucrative shifts. Vacation and sick time were not allowed. If a dancer missed work, she had to find a replacement with skin as light as hers or lighter, and with the same size or bigger breasts. 

The strippers formed the Exotic Dancers Union, a chapter of the Service Employees International Union, Local 790.  

They picketed the Lusty Lady, calling, “Bad girls like good contracts!” and “Two, four, six, eight-don’t go here to masturbate!” 

The club hired labor lawyers, and the women drew from their own ranks to form research and negotiating teams. After months, the parties reached a deal. The club removed one-way mirrors and the classification systems, kept the union and allowed sick days.  

Each year since, the dancers have voted in more favorable contracts, said Query, who still works at the club while in graduate school to become a therapist.  

Query, now 32, said the union contract kept her from being fired. 

“I love working in a peep show because I never worked with so many women with college degrees, mostly in women’s studies and philosophy,” says Query onstage in one scene showing her other career in a stand-up comedy club. “It’s like they figured out what to do with patriarchy – take its money.” 

The film touches on the dispute among feminists over whether sex work is demeaning or empowering.  

One scene shows a pile of feminist theory books stacking up.  

Cartoons show a woman walking down a catwalk and taking off her bra, alternating with a woman burning her bra over a fire. 

Query’s talks with her mother echo the feminist debate. Early in the movie, the mother, Dr. Joyce Wallace, is shown describing her AIDS prevention work with New York prostitutes to Barbara Walters.  

But when Wallace visits San Francisco, Query clears her apartment of all sex paraphernalia, and balks at introducing her to friends called Cayenne, Cinnamon and Octopussy. 

Query finally reveals her profession at a conference on prostitution where mother and daughter are speaking on separate panels.  

Wallace says that she never wanted her child to be ashamed of her body. “I think you overdid it,” she said.